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Summary and book reviews of The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

The Illness Lesson

by Clare Beams

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams X
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
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  • Published:
    Feb 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Listen to an audio excerpt of The Illness Lesson

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think the author chose to begin the story with the red birds, or "trilling hearts"? How did they set the tone for the rest of the novel?
  2. Each chapter begins with a quote from the novel-within-a-novel, The Darkening Glass, which represents a cultural touchstone for the characters. Can you think of a literary work that carries similar popularity and relevance in our current time?
  3. Caroline observes that her father imagines the students as "a kind of beautiful clay: dense, rich, formless, and waiting for him." What do you think this says about his intentions as a teacher? Have you ever had a teacher who wielded this kind of influence?
  4. Eliza is the students' ringleader and she is also the first to fall ill. How did your feelings ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The novel is a clever critique of the paternalism and subtle condescension often present just below the surface of supposedly forward-thinking men. The author sustains a deeply discomfiting atmosphere of dread throughout, making The Illness Lesson a quiet feminist thriller about the perils of respecting male authority over one's own moral instincts...continued

Full Review Members Only (738 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

New York Times
There’s plenty to mull over between the puzzling fowl, the classroom dynamics and our complicated protagonist’s eerie ability to better intuit how to police her young female charges than Samuel can. Best of all is Beams’s tone: ironic and arch when relaying the spirited optimism of Samuel’s precious experiments, urgent and sinister when depicting their nightmarish outcomes. Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections.

Publishers Weekly
Beams excels in her depiction of Caroline, an intriguingly complex character...This powerful and resonant feminist story will move readers.

Library Journal
Bard Prize winner Beams 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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Beams takes risk after risk...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.

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 other times sympathetic, and always wholly compelling and beautifully rendered.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls
The Illness Lesson is a brilliant, suspenseful, beautifully-executed psychological thriller. With power, subtlety, and keen intelligence, Clare Beams has somehow crafted a tale that feels like both classical ghost story and like a modern (and very timely) scream of female outrage. I stayed up all night to finish reading it, and I can still feel its impact thrumming through my mind and body. A masterpiece.

Author Blurb 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.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Changes to Female Education Pioneered by Women in 19th Century America

Portrait of Emma Willard The plot of The Illness Lesson revolves around the establishment of a Massachusetts school for girls in 1871 by a man with ideas about female education that are progressive and experimental for this era. The protagonist's father Samuel Hood believes that his teenage students should be offered the same curriculum as their male peers, including the study of biology, philosophy and literature. Schools that catered to girls/young women in the 19th century were often essentially finishing schools, where students were offered largely moral and domestic instruction (such as sewing and childcare). However, education opportunities for women were expanded through schools like Georgia Female College (1836), Mount Holyoke Seminary (1837) and Elmira...

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