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The Illness Lesson
Cover of The Illness Lesson
The Illness Lesson
A Novel
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"Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections."—New York Times Book Review
Named a most anticipated book of 2020 by Time, Vanity Fair, Esquire, O Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, BookRiot, Domino, and LitHub
"Brilliant, suspenseful...A masterpiece."—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls

At their newly founded school, Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline promise a groundbreaking education for young women. But Caroline has grave misgivings. After all, her own unconventional education has left her unmarriageable and isolated, unsuited to the narrow roles afforded women in 19th century New England.
When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the town, Caroline alone seems to find them unsettling. But it's not long before the assembled students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms: Rashes, seizures, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. One by one, they sicken. Fearing ruin for the school, Samuel overrules Caroline's pleas to inform the girls' parents and turns instead to a noted physician, a man whose sinister ministrations—based on a shocking historic treatment—horrify Caroline. As the men around her continue to dictate, disastrously, all terms of the girls' experience, Caroline's body too begins to betray her. To save herself and her young charges, she will have to defy every rule that has governed her life, her mind, her body, and her world.
Clare Beams's extraordinary debut story collection We Show What We Have Learned earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender, and established Beams as a writer who "creates magical-realist pieces that often calculate the high cost of being a woman" (The Rumpus). Precisely observed, hauntingly atmospheric, as fiercely defiant as it is triumphant, The Illness Lesson is a spellbinding piece of storytelling.
"Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections."—New York Times Book Review
Named a most anticipated book of 2020 by Time, Vanity Fair, Esquire, O Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, BookRiot, Domino, and LitHub
"Brilliant, suspenseful...A masterpiece."—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls

At their newly founded school, Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline promise a groundbreaking education for young women. But Caroline has grave misgivings. After all, her own unconventional education has left her unmarriageable and isolated, unsuited to the narrow roles afforded women in 19th century New England.
When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the town, Caroline alone seems to find them unsettling. But it's not long before the assembled students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms: Rashes, seizures, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. One by one, they sicken. Fearing ruin for the school, Samuel overrules Caroline's pleas to inform the girls' parents and turns instead to a noted physician, a man whose sinister ministrations—based on a shocking historic treatment—horrify Caroline. As the men around her continue to dictate, disastrously, all terms of the girls' experience, Caroline's body too begins to betray her. To save herself and her young charges, she will have to defy every rule that has governed her life, her mind, her body, and her world.
Clare Beams's extraordinary debut story collection We Show What We Have Learned earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender, and established Beams as a writer who "creates magical-realist pieces that often calculate the high cost of being a woman" (The Rumpus). Precisely observed, hauntingly atmospheric, as fiercely defiant as it is triumphant, The Illness Lesson is a spellbinding piece of storytelling.
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About the Author-
  • 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. With her husband and two daughters, she lives in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing, most recently at Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    Starred review from November 1, 2019
    A progressive all-girls school in 1870s Massachusetts is thrown into chaos when its residents begin to experience inexplicable maladies. Caroline Hood is the daughter of one of the most prominent thinkers in New England. Her father, Samuel, is a widowed essayist best known for a failed social experiment--a sort of utopian village--he attempted when Caroline was a child. This failure was lightly fictionalized in one of the period's most popular novels, The Darkening Glass. So when Samuel gets the idea to found a rigorous school to teach girls about their "deepest selves" on the site of the failed community, Caroline, now in her late 20s, is apprehensive. This apprehension deepens when one of their pupils, Eliza, turns out to be the daughter of the man who wrote The Darkening Glass. Eliza's presence is even more disruptive than Caroline and Samuel feared: Though an intelligent and mature student, Eliza seems more interested in prying into the secrets of the Hoods' past than in her studies. When Eliza suddenly begins manifesting strange physical ailments--seizurelike fits, mysterious markings, hysteria--the other girls soon come down with them, too. Caroline assumes some kind of manipulation; that is, until they start happening to her. When her father calls upon a physician, a family friend who seems to share Samuel's forward thinking, to treat the girls, the world that Caroline and her father tried to build is in danger, once again, of crashing down. Beams (We Show What We Have Learned, 2016) takes risk after risk in this, her first novel, and they all seem to pay off. Her ventriloquizing of the late 19th century, her delicate-as-lace sentences, and the friction between the unsettling thinking of the period and its 21st century resonances make for an electrifying read. A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2019

    DEBUT In 1871, scholar/philosopher Samuel Hood lives in Ashwell, MA, on a farm that was previously the site of a utopian community experiment. That experiment has long since failed, and Hood's new plan is to educate young women to be equals to their male counterparts. Hood and adult daughter Caroline, a devotee of his philosophy, will head up the faculty. The students arrive, including one connected to the farm's previous function. But a secret lies waiting to be revealed, and the students soon begin to show signs of illness. One has a strange rash. Another has a verbal tic. A third has "fits." Hood calls on a psychiatric physician he knows to treat the girls for what seems to be group hysteria. The psychiatrist's sinister treatment, amounting to sexual abuse, is condoned by the men at the farm despite their misgivings and Caroline's outright protests. VERDICT Bard Prize winner Beams (We Show What We Have Learned) successfully shapes the characters who tell the story, capturing the mores of the times and delving deeply into the psychological aspects of the situation. The underlying secret creates a tension that is resolved only in the final pages. Readers of general fiction will enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/19.]--Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 2, 2019
    Beams’s daring debut novel (after the story collection We Show What We Have Learned) imagines a school for teenage girls in the mid-19th century Massachusetts countryside. Here, at a failed commune, sensitive Caroline lives with her idealistic, ambitious father, Samuel, and his admirer David, for whom 20-something Caroline harbors secret feelings. When Samuel starts a school dedicated to the intellectual awakening of its eight young women students, things quickly go astray. Following the lead of Eliza, the daughter of a rival of Samuel, the girls begin to exhibit a variety of physical ailments—headaches, skin irritations, and sleepwalking—as does, to her own horror, Caroline, a teacher at the school. When an unscrupulous doctor is brought in to test an experimental treatment on the girls, Caroline must decide whether to stay loyal to her father or question his authority. Though there is a fantastical thread about a flock of mysterious, aggressive, blood-red birds that doesn’t fit well with the otherwise plausible plot, Beams excels in her depiction of Caroline, an intriguingly complex character, and in her depiction of the school, which allows the reader a clear view of changing gender roles in the period, with parallels to today’s sexual abuse scandals. This powerful and resonant feminist story will move readers. (Feb.)
    Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the author's first name.

  • Booklist (starred review) "Luminous...This suspenseful and vividly evocative tale expertly explores women's oppression as well as their sexuality through the eyes of a heroine who is sometimes maddening, at othertimes sympathetic, and always wholly compelling and beautifully rendered."
  • Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks "Stunningly good--a brainy page-turner that's gorgeous and frightening in equal measure. The Illness Lesson dazzled me."
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Clare Beams
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