I did not deliberately choose to read Mary Beth Keane's first novel, The Walking People. It came to me in a blizzard of books I read as one of three judges for a literary prize back in 2010. I took my responsibility seriously, even primly; one thing that worried me was how strongly my personal biases would influence my choices. (Was I supposed to be impartial? Of course not. But any passionately written book deserves enormous respect.)
So here is where I admit that I was barely a few pages into The Walking People when my heart sank. I recognized it as a story involving Irish immigrants to America. Just then, I happened to be weary of immigrant stories in general, nor did it help that I had recently, belatedly, read the incomparable Angela's Ashes. And -- second confession -- I was raised by a mother with Scots-Presbyterian roots who had tainted my generally egalitarian self with her lifelong grudge against Irish Catholics. As I knew all too well, the most traumatic bullying she'd experienced as a child came from Catholic schoolmates -- who taunted the Protestants as destined for hell because they couldn't go to confession. But I digress.
I had vowed to read at least 50 pages of every book I was to judge, so I took The Walking People with me on an overnight trip I made alone, to give a talk. Perhaps the only way to keep my promise to this book would be to hold myself hostage to it in a hotel -- with nothing for diversion but the bedside Bible and the cable listings. That night, I went to bed without reading, exhausted; in the morning, I decided to hang out with the dreaded book until 9 a.m. or so, just to avoid rush-hour traffic. Sighing, I opened it. When I next looked up at the clock, it was 11:15, past checkout time. I had lost not only my connection to real time but very nearly an extra night in hotel fees.
I drove home, stashed my suitcase, and plunged back into the book. Every so often I'd flip to the end and look at the author's photo. How on earth did this fresh-faced young woman"”from my middle-aged perspective, this girl"”know so damn much about so many things? I'll skip all the exquisite historic and cultural details of that novel. What Mary Beth Keane knows best, and most remarkably, is how the human heart grows, changes, and endures. She seems to know intimately every stage of life, from childhood through sexual awakening, through long marriages and parenthood, through working lives filled with compromise, through the mental dwindlings of old age.
Out of more than a hundred accomplished books, I and my fellow judges named The Walking People one of the top five contenders for the PEN/Hemingway Prize. At the ceremony, I met Mary Beth, and I asked what her next act would be. Later, I paused to wonder: Wait. Did she really say, "A novel about Typhoid Mary"? (Okay, so maybe my hearing is starting to go. The room was awfully crowded.)
Last year, finally, I read Fever. And you might say I read it in a fever -- the fever of emotional suspense that makes all the best books so essential. Does it involve Irish immigrants? Yes. Did I give a hoot? No. Mary Mallon is a show-stopping, strong-willed, heartbreaking heroine, and the New York in which she lived a hundred years ago comes stunningly alive as the backdrop for the story of her long and rich but star-crossed life.
Here's something I know firsthand: second novels that follow prizewinning firsts are tough. They're tough to write, tough to send out into the world. But Fever is even more ambitious, beguiling, and moving than The Walking People. Mary Beth has outdone herself. And now, of course, I have to find out what in the world she'll conjure up next. This time I'll trust my hearing. Already I can't wait to read it.