book review: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams



Doubleday, 2019


The thing about The Illness Lesson is that it isn’t enough of anything. It isn’t historical enough, it isn’t weird enough, it isn’t feminist enough.  The premise – girls at a boarding school who fall prey to a mysterious illness – sounds like it’s going to make for a positively entrancing book, but I could not have been more bored while reading this.  It never felt grounded enough in its setting to really provide much commentary about the time period (which historical fiction is wont to do) – not to mention that about a quarter of the way through the book I had to ask a friend who was also reading it if it was set in the U.S. or the U.K.

There’s a recurring motif of red birds throughout the novel – strange red birds have flocked to the school for reasons no one knows.  This was an intriguing thread that proved to be, like everything else in this book, utterly inconsequential; it’s empty symbolism shoehorned in in order to imbue this book with some kind of meaning that wasn’t actually there.

As for the girls falling ill: this plot point is relegated to the latter half of the book (what happens before that, I don’t think I could tell you), and I was frustrated and a little sick at the way their invasive treatment was narratively handled.  This book does contain an element of rape, which is never given the depth or breadth it deserves; instead it seems like it’s there for shock value in the eleventh hour, not offering near enough insight to justify its inclusion.

On the whole, I found this book incredibly anemic and unsatisfying.  I finished this a few weeks ago and I think, at the time, there was a reason I opted for 2 stars instead of 1, but I may need to downgrade my rating because I cannot think of a single thing I liked about this.

Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of The Illness Lesson here on Book Depository.

17 thoughts on “book review: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

  1. Very much agree with this, although I think I enjoyed it a bit more than you because I thought most of the writing was top-notch. I hope she chooses a totally different subject next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • OH you know what it might have been the writing that I added a star for – I wasn’t particularly wowed by it overall but I did think it was solid and there was the occasional nice turn of phrase that I liked. I’d definitely read something else from her in a completely different genre! Nothing historical please.

      Liked by 1 person

    • (slight spoiler) I’m not sure everyone will agree with my use of the word rape; it’s that the treatment for their illness, diagnosed as hysteria, is bringing in this doctor who digitally penetrates them to force orgasm. So, rape. But I can also see where some people wouldn’t agree with my ‘rape for shock value’ analysis… however, I maintain that I am correct and that this deserved more narrative attention if she was going to go there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh no, I think it’s time to remove this one from my TBR entirely. I actually had a library hold on it when it first came out but I had too many holds and had to nyx something- how lucky it was this one! For such an intriguing premise it is so disappointing that the author doesn’t take the story far enough in any of its possible directions to satisfy. :/

    Liked by 2 people

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