I really enjoy good feminist historical fiction. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for great commentary on the treatment of women. So I was definitely intrigued when I read the synopsis for Clare Beams’s The Illness Lesson. It felt a little bit Salem Witch Trial-y to me, which I am totally on board for. Plus, the cover is gorgeous.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
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.
Caroline alone can speak on behalf of the students, but only if she summons the confidence to question everything she’s ever learnt. Does she have the strength to confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world and protect the young women in her care?
The Illness Lesson reminded me a little bit of The Grace Year by Kim Liggett. So I thought I was going to love it. And in the beginning, I did. But, honestly, the writing just wasn’t speaking to me. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t particularly good. It felt a little bit basic, like it just needed a few more rounds of edits to be made into something great. I could see the potential, it just wasn’t great. And if you know anything about my reading habits, you probably already know that writing can make a huge difference in my reading. Unfortunately, in this case, there was just something about it that was a little bit distracting and prevented me from enjoying the story.
That said, I did like the story. Sort of. It felt like a blend between The Crucible and Wilder Girls. I thought it was interesting, but ultimately unoriginal. Too many things happened in this book that felt a bit rushed or didn’t have much of a purpose. I don’t think it does a particularly great job of making the point about how women’s health issues are so often ignored (at least, I think that was the point this book was trying to make).
Overall, I don’t think this was a terrible book, it just wasn’t for me. The writing wasn’t my favorite, and that’s something that can make or break a book for me.
★★☆☆☆ – I initially gave The Illness Lesson three stars, but the more I think about it, it’s actually a two-star book. I just didn’t really enjoy reading it. And I’m kind of sad about it. Mostly because three out of the four 2020 releases I’ve read so far this year have been two-star reads. Keep your fingers crossed my next ARC is better!
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This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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