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ISSUE 119 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 3/3/2006

'Wickett's Remedy,' cure for the common novel

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 3, 2006

For a disease that killed at least 20 (perhaps as many as 40) million people around the world, the influenza pandemic of 1918 has been mostly ignored in fiction. Myla Goldberg's new novel “Wickett's Remedy” admirably redresses literature's silence on the topic.

The story follows the exploits of Lydia Kilkenny, a daughter of Irish immigrants from Boston's South Ward who aspires to loftier circumstances. In her work as a shopgirl at the city's most prestigious department store Lydia meets, and eventually marries, Henry Wickett, a young man from one of the city's oldest families.

No one is more dismayed than Lydia when Henry quits medical school to create the remedy of the book's title, which turns only a meager profit. But by the time Henry perishes in the influenza's “first wave,” his erstwhile young business partner, Quentin Driscoll, has begun to dream of turning the remedy into the foundation of his own commercial empire.

It could almost be said that the influenza itself is the book's real protagonist, but that would be doing a disservice to QD Soda, whose fortunes Goldberg chronicles parenthetically at the end of every chapter, through the saga of Quentin Driscoll as told by his protégé. She also mixes in unattributed conversations, snippets of the QD Soda fan club newsletter in the 1990s, and actual newspaper articles from the period.

All this contextual detritus would be more than enough for most other writers, but Goldberg goes one better. The book's most intriguing, and melancholy, feature is the marginal commentary provided by none other than the dead, or “Us” as they refer to themselves.

The afterlife offers little solace in Goldberg's vision. For the dead, it consists of bootless whispers to the living and avid, voyeuristic consumption of each other's memories of the living world. Moreover, the chorus is quick to point out every character's failure of recollection, which lends even Goldberg's authoritative voice a provisional, subjective air.

Goldberg's first novel, “Bee Season” was an overnight success in 2000, and “Wickett's Remedy” confirms that she has talent to burn. She researched the novel's subject matter for more than five years, and the vividness with which she recreates that vanished Boston and the fidelity of the experience of the pandemic are marvelous.

The influenza itself is particularly harrowing. Goldberg's description of the flu and its victims is too real and too affecting to bear in one sitting; I had to keep taking breaks to recover myself. The recent, well-publicized concerns about the spread of a new avian influenza, supposedly the world's next big pandemic, only make “Wickett's Remedy” even more compelling and the heartbreaking naïveté, and ignorance of even the best doctors of the age – as well as the shocking blatancy of World War I jingoism is horrifying.

In the end, however, it is not the influenza that lingers in the mind, but Goldberg's prose. She is a wonderfully subtle writer, deft but elegant in her characterizations, her descriptions and her jewel-like sentences, which can be almost breath-taking in their simplicity: “Running, intrinsic to childhood, becomes in adulthood an act of last resort.” Or of Lydia's first realization of the pandemic's affects, Goldberg writes, “If this was some new and dire season, then she would come to know its name.”

On the book's jacket description Lydia herself remains far more colorless, if even more acutely characterized than the heroine of “Bee Season,” the spectacular Eliza. But Goldberg is enough of a writer that she does not need a terrific protagonist to carry the weight of her slender story. Wickett's Remedy is, all in all, the perfect, if bittersweet, cure-all for the average work of fiction.

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