Saturday, February 22, 2020

"The Illness Lesson"

Clare Beams is the author of the story collection We Show What We Have Learned, which won the Bard Prize and was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016, as well as a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. After teaching high school English for six years in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she now lives with her husband and two daughters. She has taught creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and St. Vincent College.

Beams applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Illness Lesson, and reported the following:
From page 69:
On a chill Wednesday afternoon, six of the girls, in cloaks and shawls, circled on the grass under the birch by the front step. The Darkening Glass lay open on each lap. Caroline spied them from her bedroom window, went down the stairs, out the back door, and around the house. She wasn’t creeping up on them—she was going for a walk. They would see her when they saw her.

In the meantime, she could hear Abigail’s voice, reading. “‘Night approached quickly, but not as quickly as the answering night within.’ Caroline drew nearer. Half of them looked down at their pages, dutiful as if this were a classroom. Livia fidgeted, Tabitha stared up into the leaves—Caroline had yet to see Tabitha attend to any reading, or really any sustained task, without several promptings—and Eliza reclined on one elbow, watching Abigail, whose face, tipped to the words, seemed to glow in the sunlight reflecting off the page. “‘A fear, nay, a terror for her grew in him.’” Eliza’s eyes on Caroline now.

“Hello,” Eliza said.

Abigail stopped, startled.

“Aren’t you all a picture of industry.”

Had Abigail volunteered, or had Eliza called on her?

“How are you finding your reading?”

“Wonderful,” Tabitha said.

“It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” Rebecca added. Rebecca who had now read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Bible.

Eliza smiled. “They’re so kind to me.”
I’m amazed at how much of the meat of The Illness Lesson is here on page 69. The novel is about a 19th-century school for girls, founded on idealistic, noble principles but with important blind spots (some inadvertent, some willed)—and about an episode of mass hysteria amongst the students. Caroline, the protagonist, is the daughter of the school’s founder, an aging philosopher, and she’s also a teacher at the school; at this point in the novel she’s beginning to feel unsettled by the power of one of the students, Eliza. The (invented) novel the students are reading here, The Darkening Glass, is a gothic, schlocky page-turner written by Eliza’s very famous, long-dead father. The girls’ impromptu circle-study in this scene seems to Caroline to be a mark of Eliza’s growing influence, and she worries that Eliza is starting to shape the other girls in ways that don’t always accord with the school’s own shaping. A lot of the novel’s drama will hinge on the questions that are raised in this scene: of who or what is doing the shaping, and what the costs are, and to whom. Here the girls have already begun to move past what the school has planned for them, and Caroline is faced with the dilemma of what she should do in response; this is a pattern that will persist and intensify in the coming pages.
Visit Clare Beams's website.

--Marshal Zeringue