Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg

Product Details:
ISBN: 0385513240
Format: Hardcover, 326pp
Pub. Date: September 2005
Publisher: Doubleday Publishing

Thought I would try a new format for the review of "Wickett's Remedy" . I have chosen to review the book in a series of questions and answers. Hope you find the format enjoyable, but first, here's a quick summary:

"Wickett's Remedy" is about a working-class Irish-American woman, Lydia Wickett , in Boston during the 1918 flu epidemic.

The "remedy" is a mail-order patent medicine invented by her student- medic husband Henry Wickett and flavored by Lydia. Strictly speaking, however, it wasn't really a medicine but just a placebo that had a nice taste to it. The 'real' remedy was the therapeutic letter that Henry always made sure accompanied a bottle of that tonic. "What does it matter if someone buys a bottle of Wickett's looking for a cure inside it and instead finds one in the letter that comes with it?" Henry asks his wife. He is not someone who wishes to profit from the business of selling snake oil - he truly believes he has the gift to cure via words (letters) and wants to do good in this world. Unfortunately, Henry dies early from the flu and his dishonest partner, Quentin Driscoll, turns the medicine into a successful soda drink called "QD Soda" which makes him a very wealthy man, something Lydia Wickett is totally unaware of until much later. The rest of the story is about how Lydia copes with the epidemic and how it affects her life and those of whom she loves.

Why did I choose this book?

This book first came to my attention on a program at NPR.org where author Myla Goldberg was interviewed. Although Ms. Goldberg's first book "Bee Season" was lauded by the critics, she is not the sort of author I would generally gravitate towards, but when I found out that her second novel was about the 1918 flu epidemic, the Emergency Room volunteer in me just had to read it.

What did I enjoy about the book?

I thought it was very clever of the author to make Influenza the central theme of her new novel; with avian flu on the horizon, the "F" word seems to be on everybody's lips. I'm a disease- nut, so all the passages in the book chronicling clinical details of the flu, (the ones that deal with what The Washington Post calls the "yuck factor") are my favorite ones. This book has been meticulously researched (it took five years of writing and research) and provides a lot of detail on how people in Boston where affected by this plague.

Also, the main protoganist, Lydia, after she loses her husband Henry Wickett, her bother Michael and more than a few friends and neighbours to the flu, decides to get a job working as a volunteer nurse in an experimental ward at Gallups where captured Navy deserters are used as guinea pigs to understand how the epidemic is being spread. Here, doctors are willfully infecting people through elaborate snot transfers: The sick cough out phlegm, and the healthy swallow it. Being a volunteer in the emergency ward myself, I totally resonate with Lydia's calling to look after the soldiers despite dangers to her own health.

Finally, I liked that the author didn't try to sanitize her descriptions of the flu but told it as she researched or imagined it.

"... she Lydia) learned to steel herself against the sight of soiled sheets. Her face grew an invisible callus that held her features in place so she did not flinch at the gurgling blue-lipped boy; or the bog-chested woman whose skin was covered in dark blotches and whose nose dripped thick, black blood; or the delirious young man who, in his fever mistook Lydia for his sister, dead days before. But however how hard she tried she could not cotton her ears against the sounds of sickness. Influenza loosed pneumonia into the lungs, and pneumonia's sounds were those of a body drowning from within. Pneumonia turned skin and lips the bruised gray-blue of an evening sky before a storm. She was informed in hush voices by the nurses that those with feet tinged that colour seldom lived through the night..."

Why did the author decide to write such a book?

Myla Goldberg began writing Wickett's Remedy after reading a newspaper article, which listed the 1918 influenza outbreak as one of the five worst plagues of all time. She says she was stunned by the fact that the catastrophe seemed to have vanished from public memory, despite the fact that it killed some 22-50 million people worldwide. "In the United States alone, it killed between 500,000 and 800,000 people," Ms. Goldberg says, "more Americans than have been killed in all 20th century wars combined. And this is something that happened in a six to nine month period. And so the idea that memory is something we just cannot trust -- it was that aspect of it that drew me into the story."

What did I dislike about the book and what comments do I have on the writing style?

I didn't like how the author went back and forth between Lydia's story and the made-up newsletters by people praising the tonic/medicine that her husband's partner turned into a successful soft drink. I found that the made-up correspondance detracted from the real story - the story of how the flu affected Lydia and her family in Boston.

I also disliked how, in the margins of the text, Goldberg had a chorus of voices, ( her characters' ghosts) constantly correcting, challenging and contradicting statements made by the living. I thought it was an ingenious idea initally, but it grew increasingly weird and a bit tedious to read as the story went on. In an interview, Goldberg says she felt compelled to introduce these voices because , as we have seen, memories are really so short-lived and unreliable - in other words, we tend to forget details of even very important or momentous episodes in our lives and essentially we are dependent on each other to keep memories alive. By using these many voices in her book she gave herself a broader canvas on which to paint the picture of the Spanish Flu in Boston. The voices also make us realise that there is no one correct version of history---each voice has his or her own memories.

Is the book cover attractive?

Yes, very. I love the picture of the little girl on the label of the bottle. She looks like she could have stepped out from my mother's photo album from the '50's. She creates in me a sense of nostalgia for the golden days of old.

Would I recommend this book?

Mais oui! If you want to read about the flu epidemic of 1918 in general and how it affected the people of Boston specifically, this would be a great book to immerse yourself in. Because it's fiction, it makes for a more entertaining read than something in the non-fiction genre. This is also a good book to read if you are a writer yourself, for the author has done some very interesting and unusual work on the text.