Book Review: The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams

A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.

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The Illness Lesson takes place in the early 1870s in Massachusetts where Caroline’s father, Samuel Hood, has decided to turn their farm into a school for adolescent girls — a school that will teach them more than how to be housewives with good manners. At the same time, a flock of unusual birds that haven’t been officially “discovered” yet starts making nests on the Hoods’ property. Caroline remembers the last time these birds showed up, because that was when her mother died. When the girls at the Hoods’ school start coming down with weird ailments, Samuel Hood calls in a doctor that ends up treating the girls for “hysteria.” And if you know anything about the history of women’s “hysteria” and how it was treated, well…

I have a number of thoughts about this book, and they might be a bit rambly because it’s been some time since I read this. I’m going to just throw them out there in no particular order…

There *might* be some spoilery details over the next few paragraphs. You have been forewarned.

The cover is made to look like embroidery. It’s gorgeous.

I really liked that this book was set during the time of Transcendentalism in New England, because I am a huge fan of the Transcendentalists (I get a bit swoony about Emerson and Thoreau). Samuel Hood thinks of himself as a feminist and is very into opening this school for girls where they can be taught science and literature and philosophy and such. Samuel was also involved in a (failed) communal living situation at one point, which totally reminded me of the story of the Alcott family and their experience with communal living. But it is obvious by the end of the book that none of the men in the story are feminists. Nope.

The bit about the birds is very interesting. The birds sound gorgeous, the way they are described. I also like that they haven’t been officially discovered by scientists and that they are finally given a scientific name by the end of the book. I will say, though, that the synopsis of the book makes it sound like the birds end up playing a very sinister role in the story, and they don’t. Don’t be fooled. I really thought there was going to be a bit of the supernatural or a bit of…oddness…in this book that wasn’t delivered. The birds are totally innocuous, just doing bird things. And some of those things are kind of creepy in the eyes of humans, yes, but they are totally natural things. You learn that Caroline feels so strangely about the birds because in her mind they are tied up with the death of her mother.

There is a fictional book involved in the story that I kind of wish were real so I could read it. I thoroughly enjoyed that everyone (aside from Samuel) was so into it.

I saw it coming, but the “hysteria” part of the book and what ensues are the hardest parts to read. If you haven’t ever read about how women and their emotions were thought of way back when, or how hysteria was “cured,” then you’re in for a doozy of a surprise. And these are teenage girls we’re talking about.

You know what this book basically said? Even the “good guys” can be total shits. No matter how progressive they are or how much they claim to support of the rights of women, they can still, in reality, be total shits. But we already knew that.

There is also a conversation around whether or not women should be given this kind of agency and education that I found interesting. I mean, in those kinds of conversations, I shoot from the hip. Of course women (even 19th-century women) should be given agency and a good education! Right?

I really enjoyed The Illness Lesson, despite the parts that were difficult to read. Clare Beams is really good at writing with a 19th-century style. I kept forgetting that this book was just published. And again, I love that it takes place in New England with an undertone of Transcendentalism. I hesitate to talk too much about the characters because I tend to describe characters with overused phrases like “well-rounded” or “fleshed-out,” and that annoys me. I will say that I thought I was going to love Caroline and really dislike Sophia, but in the end, it wasn’t that simple.

The only thing that I think wasn’t as developed (or that didn’t live up to the publisher’s synopsis) was the role of the birds. And maybe I missed some kind of metaphor or connection. That’s definitely a possibility.

Have you read The Illness Lesson? What did you think?