The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams (Doubleday Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson is a gripping historical fiction that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The novel is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts in 1871, where Samuel Hood, a retired transcendental essayist, is establishing The School for the Trilling Heart. This private school for young women is the first of its kind. Its courses are taught by Samuel, young Civil War veteran David, and Samuel’s daughter Caroline. Throughout the novel, we follow Caroline as she struggles with her identity as an educated, unwed twenty-eight year old woman.
On the day the school is established, brilliant, red birds appear on the rural farm. Caroline is the only one concerned with these creatures, because she recalls the same birds appearing twenty-five years earlier when her mother died of mysterious “fits.” Caroline worries throughout the novel that as she ages, she will also be affected by that strange illness and die suddenly.
Despite a small hiccup in recruitment, the school opens successfully. The girls learn to speak their mind freely and explore the subject matters of history, science, and literature without limitations. The story quickly builds tension, however, when the group of girls start to display strange and unknown physical ailments. The feisty daughter of the deceased Miles Pearson, Samuel’s sworn enemy, is the first one to show signs. But her symptoms are brushed off and the schooling continues.
But more girl’s start to show signs. The trilling hearts multiply, and Caroline quietly worries she is next. In a panic, Samuel calls on an old acquaintance to see the young women. He declares that they are suffering from hysteria, a physical ailment that only affects those with a uterus. Despite incredible push back from Caroline, who is incredibly uncomfortable with the “treatment,” the men continue with their horrific plan to “cure” these girls.
While based on historical events, Beams’ descriptions of the “treatment” for this illness can easily be triggering for those who have suffered from sexual abuse or violence. As a reader, I felt that there needed to be a warning in the description of the novel, as this surprise left me feeling disgusting and violated, just like the main characters in the story.
After much upset and more drama, the novel ends with Caroline discovering truths about her family that she needed to be able to set herself free from her father’s strange hold. While I wanted more for Caroline and more for the women in the story, I also understood that Beams’ created an ending that felt true to the expectations of the time period.
Beams makes it clear that despite appearing forward-thinking, the men in this story don’t truly want what’s best for women. Beams’ latest book is a fresh voice in an overflowing sea of novels that critiques women’s treatment in modern society. Beautifully written and creative, it is a fantastic summer read that you will not be able to put down.
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