After finishing The Illness Lesson, readers might think it’s a new edition of a late 19th-century novel. The style, language, dialect, and images evoke the feeling of an elite girls school, circa 1871, that takes a horrendous turn after a promising start.
But the author, Clare Beams, is decidedly au courant.
“With historical fiction, what you’re always looking for is the flavor of a time period without sounding like you’re trying to parrot the time period,” says Beams. “When I write historically, I’m not always aware of it, but there’s often a resonance with some contemporary thing that makes me drawn to that.”
Beams will appear in conversation with author Anjali Sachdeva at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield on Tue., Feb. 11.
The Edgewood resident’s debut novel — following her brilliant short-story collection, 2017’s We Show What We Have Learned — is being heralded as one of the most promising books of 2020 by Lithub, Publisher’s Weekly, and more.
With The Illness Lesson (Doubleday), the historical resonance to contemporary life is accidental. She’d finished the manuscript right before the USA Gymnastics scandal broke in 2016. (Beams sold the book in 2018.) To say more is to give away a key plot element, but one of Beams’ characters has an aspect similar to Larry Nassar, the disgraced national team doctor for USA Gymnastics.
“I think there’s something about that that does give the book a certain feeling of topicality that I’m grateful for,” Beams says. “But it also reassures me that it’s an important story to tell. This is something that has happened forever and continues to happen.”
The story starts with a promising premise: Samuel Hood, a famous philosopher who can be viewed as a Transcendentalist, starts a school to give female students the same type of quality education afforded to their male peers. With help from his daughter, Caroline, and David Moore, an admirer of Samuel’s essays, he establishes the school and a family homestead, though not without some troubling neighbors: a flock of startling red birds, which Beams calls “trilling hearts.”
These birds can’t be found in an aviary or field guide, but in The Illness Lesson, they are a foreboding, almost Hitchcockian presence, especially for Caroline, who is desperately struggling to find meaning in her male-dominated world. Even though her father and Moore are progressives, they fail to value her intelligence and capabilities.
“A lot of those Transcendentalist thinkers thought so many truly beautiful things,” Beams says. “They were always on the right side of slavery, and very firmly. They always thought that women had actual minds and should be educated, but a lot of those men didn’t pay attention to the women around them making all that lovely thinking possible. That’s what I wanted to play with.”