Saturday, October 27, 2012

REVIEW: Quarantine by John Smolens

Synopsis (from Amazon): The year is 1796, and a trading ship arrives in the vibrant trading town of Newburyport, Massachusetts.  But it's a ghost ship--her entire crew has been decimated by a virulent fever which sweeps through the harbor town, and Newburyport's residents start to fall ill and die with alarming haste.   Something has to be done to stop the virus from spreading further.  When physician Giles Wiggins places the port under quarantine, he earns the ire of his shipbuilder half-brother, the wealthy and powerful Enoch Sumner, and their eccentric mother, Miranda. Defiantly, Giles sets up a pest-house, where the afflicted might be cared for and separated from the rest of the populace in an attempt to contain the epidemic. As the seaport descends into panic, religious fervor, and mob rule, bizarre occurrences ensue:  the harbormaster’s family falls victim to the fever, except for his son, Leander Hatch, who is taken in at the Sumner mansion and a young woman, Marie Montpelier, is fished out of the Merrimac River barely clinging to life, causing Giles and Enoch—who is convinced she’s the expatriate daughter of the French king—to vie for her attentions--all while medical supplies are pillaged by a black marketer from Boston.  As the epidemic grows, fear, greed, and unhinged obsession threaten the Sumner family—and the future of Newburyport itself.

My Thoughts: I have a weakness for American Historical Fiction so I was happy to score this one from the publisher for review.  Quarantine tells the story of the residents of Newburyport, MA who are exposed to a devastating fever when the Miranda, a contaminated ship belonging to prominent Newburyport resident Enoch Sumner, sails into port and defies the quarantine placed on it by the harbormaster.  Soon the town residents start dropping like flies and it is up to Dr. Giles Wiggins-half brother to Enoch Sumner-to try and save the town, all while battling his unscrupulous, eccentric family and black marketers who steal the medicine needed to help the sick.  Also featured is the story of young Leander Hatch who suffers great loss due to the epidemic and relies on the kindness of Dr. Wiggins to try to restart his life.

Overall I liked this book.  Smolens does not hold back in describing the rapid devastation caused by the fever and the indignities suffered by the people who contracted it.  Vivid descriptions of blood, guts, and various other types of gore abound.  I think the best part of the book is the descriptiveness.  Quarantine really breathes life into the small port town and does a fine job of illustrating life during this time period.  Also the way in which the town reacted to this crisis-friend turning against friend, neighbor against neighbor, the religious zealots and unscrupulous sorts coming out of the woodwork-it all added a nice bit of drama to the story.

That being said there were a few things that bugged me while reading along that prevented me from giving it a  higher rating.  While I did enjoy reading the interactions between the morally bankrupt Sumner clan (matriarch Miranda, dirty old rich man Enoch and his equally corrupt son Samuel) I thought some of the scenarios and backstabbing occurring were so overdone it gave these characters an almost theatrical feel.  Their antics were really too much at times.  Another was I think the shock value of what was occurring in Newburyport replaced the suspense that should have been there.  It was just death, death, and more death and not a whole lot of mystery behind who was responsible for the medicine disappearing. 

I also didn't care for the love story between Giles and Marie-a french woman who escapes from the Miranda and is rescued by Leander.  The whole reason she was brought by Samuel from France?  He seems to think he is the illegitimate daughter of King Louis XVI and that somehow they can use this connection to their advantage.  Yes, I just said Louis XVI-you know the same guy who didn't touch his own wife for almost a decade>  The one who would rather have spent all his time making locks and hunting than be in the company of a woman?  One of the hard things about reading historical fiction is you never know whether the author slipped up and made a boo boo or whether they are trying to portray what the characters may have thought at the time.  I'm hoping in this case it is the latter because there is no way I would believe Louis XVI had a mistress he fathered an illegitimate daughter by.  Louis XIV? Yep.  Louis XV? You betcha.  Louis XVI?  Not happening.  He did have a close relationship with Gabrielle de Polignac but there has never been any concrete proof that it was sexual in nature.  For all intents and purposes I believe him to have been entirely devoted to Marie Antoinette.  So, needless to say that kind of bugged me a bit.  Recommend this if you are fan of American historicals or plague stories.  Not my favorite for the time period but it was a decent read.

 I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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