The Illness Lesson: A Novel

by Clare Beams

Hardcover, 2020




Doubleday (2020), 288 pages


Sarah Waters meets Red Clocks in this searing novel, set at an all-girl school in 19th century Massachusetts, which probes the timeless question: who gets to control a woman's body and why. The year is 1871. In Ashwell, Massachusetts, at the farm of Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, a mysterious flock of red birds descends. Samuel, whose fame as a philosopher has waned in recent years, takes the birds' appearance as an omen that the time is ripe for his newest venture. He will start a school for young women, guiding their intellectual development as he has so carefully guided his daughter's. Despite Caroline's misgivings, Samuel's vision--revolutionary, as always; noble, as always; full of holes, as always--takes shape. It's not long before the students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms. Rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. In desperation, the school turns to the ministering of a sinister physician--based on a real historic treatment--just as Caroline's body, too, begins its betrayal. As the girls' conditions worsens, long-buried secrets emerge, and Caroline must confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities around her, the ones who insist the voices of the sufferers are unreliable. In order to save herself, Caroline may have to destroy everything she's ever known. Written in intensely vivid prose and brimming with psychological insight, The Illness Lesson is a powerful exploration of women's bodies, women's minds, and the time-honored tradition of doubting both.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member bhowell
brilliant and beautiful
LibraryThing member brangwinn
Beam’s novel is an authentic voice of what the Transcendentalist movement. Were the ideals of progressive feminism just before their time or were they, as this novel seems to point to, the idea that women should be allowed to have a voice up to a certain point. Women were looked at as having an
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intellect but still their highest goal was to be married and have children. Other than Jo March in Little Women, I’ve never heard a voice as strong as the story told from Catherine’s point of view. An excellent book to read, particularly if you, like me, have questioned the idealism of the male Transcendentalists as they failed to let go of male power.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This novel is just too garbled for me. I literally could not follow the plot.
LibraryThing member NeedMoreShelves
I think this was a good novel, and frustratingly close to a great novel. I loved the premise, and the voice of the main character, Caroline, was strong and sympathetic. The author cleverly allowed the reader to experience along with her characters the ways in which even "progressive" men ultimately
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silence the women in their lives. I think there just needed to be more...something to really bring the novel to it's full potential. Perhaps the secondary characters needed more life. Perhaps the imagery of the birds needed to be expanded and ultimately resolved. This was an interesting read, but not entirely satisfying. I would, however, read more by this author.
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LibraryThing member BibliophageOnCoffee
Beautifully written and suspenseful.


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