“Mary Beth Keane is one of those gifted young writers who helps me believe — still! — in the power of literature.”



This book captivated me with its subject!
A fictionalised account of the life of Mary Mallon who was dubbed ‘Typhoid Mary’by the press because she was a carrier of the salmonella typhi bacteria that caused the disease, this was a very interesting read.

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant to New York. Arriving in America at the age of 14, she first took up a job as a laundress and then moved on to be a cook, a job at which she excelled. So much so that she was recruited to cook for some of the wealthiest families in New York.

The life Mary had made for herself was forever shattered when one morning Dr George Soper,a sanitation engineer with the Department of health, arrived at her workplace and implicated her as the source of the deadly typhoid fever which had by then affected more than twenty people she had cooked for.

Incredulous at being blamed as she had never even been exposed to the sickness herself, Mary refused to comply with his orders to quietly leave and thus began a battle that lasted the rest of her life.

An unfortunate example of a ‘healthy carrier’ which meant she could pass on the disease by just touching the food people ate, Mary was isolated to North Brother Island in the midst of her protests that she was not responsible and her refusal to do as the state deemed fit.

Having several strikes against her because not only was she a poor immigrant woman but also she had no family, was not married and had in fact lived with Alfred Bierhof,a man she was not married to, for almost two decades, Mary was sure she was being targeted unfairly especially as others like her were not treated so harshly and allowed to remain with their families even.

Released from isolation on the condition that she would never ever cook for hire again, or indeed in any situation that could cause her to pass on the bacteria to others, she managed for a while to fulfill all the conditions, but then her natural instincts and a chance at a better job took over, causing an epidemic of typhoid at the hospital she worked in as a cook. This meant she had to be isolated for the rest of her life as that was simply the best solution for the masses if not for her.

Presenting the dilemma between an individual’s right to freedom and the good of society, this book presents the trauma that Mary faced from her own POV. Being detained despite not committing any crime knowingly, taken away from everything she held dear and made to feel guilty for something that she never believed was her fault angered Mary and made her defiant.Yes, it would seem that she should not have attempted to defy orders repeatedly but in her own mind, she was less than a hundred percent sure that she had anything to do with the deaths of people. Attributing a lot of factors to why her life turned out the way it did, Mary nevertheless tried to make sense of it all and adapt, until she couldn’t.

A look at life in the early part of the twentieth century and a lesson in how grateful we should be for all the medical advancements we have now and why basic hygiene and cleanliness are still as important to our health as they were then, are my takeaways from this book.


Reviewed by:

Priya Prakash

Added 12th February 2020

More Reviews By
Priya Prakash


“Mary Beth Keane is one of those gifted young writers who helps me believe — still! — in the power of literature.”



Isn’t it strange that you find a book totally heartbreaking, but it fills you with so many emotions that you want to share it with others? That is why I write about ” Fever”, a novel by American writer Mary Beth Keane, based on the true story of Mary Mallon, who emigrated from Ireland at the end of the 19th century, in the hope of a better life in New York.

Mary, known as ” Typhoid Mary”, is a strong, courageous and hard-working young woman, with a talent for cooking. She gradually becomes a cook for the wealthy families of New York. She also falls in love with Alfred, her only true loveand they live together though unmarried.

What could be the beginning of a ” success story” turns into a tragedy, as Mary is a healthy carrier of typhoid fever, which kills many of the members of these families, mothers, children and babies. And Alfred is a lost soul, drinking all her money and miserable with depression.

When the authorities identify her, Mary is sent to North Brother Island for further medical examinations, and will stay there for three years, fighting for freedom. When at last she is released, Alfred has gone to another woman, and she is no longer allowed to work as a cook.

Alfred comes back to her, more miserable than ever, and once again she has to fight to find jobs. But there is no alternative for her and she accepts to cook for a hospital under a false identity. But death strikes back…
It is a very strong novel, powerful picture of New York as well, and the portrait of a woman who never stops fighting…but who has no way to escape tragedy. I really loved it, and am sure some of you will love it too.


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Added 9th June 2016