We are thrilled to host Clare Beams, whose electrifying new novel set in an 1870s all-girls school is a powerful exploration of women’s bodies, women’s minds, and the time-honored tradition of doubting both. “[B]oth classical ghost story...and scream of female outrage.” --Elizabeth Gilbert
At their newly founded school, Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline promise a groundbreaking education for young women. But Caroline has grave misgivings. After all, her own unconventional education has left her unmarriageable and isolated, unsuited to the narrow roles afforded women in 19th century New England.
When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the town, Caroline alone seems to find them unsettling. But it’s not long before the assembled students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms: Rashes, seizures, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. One by one, they sicken. Fearing ruin for the school, Samuel overrules Caroline’s pleas to inform the girls’ parents and turns instead to a noted physician, a man whose sinister ministrations–based on a shocking historic treatment–horrify Caroline. As the men around her continue to dictate, disastrously, all terms of the girls’ experience, Caroline’s body too begins to betray her. To save herself and her young charges, she will have to defy every rule that has governed her life, her mind, her body, and her world.
Clare Beams’s extraordinary debut story collection We Show What We Have Learned earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender, and established Beams as a writer who “creates magical-realist pieces that often calculate the high cost of being a woman” (The Rumpus). Precisely observed, hauntingly atmospheric, as fiercely defiant as it is triumphant, The Illness Lesson is a spellbinding piece of storytelling.
CLARE BEAMS is the author of the story collection We Show What We Have Learned, which won the Bard Prize and was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016, as well as a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. With her husband and two daughters, she lives in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing, most recently at Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
“The Illness Lesson truly shook me. In prose so sharp it cuts through the decades and arrives at the present day, Clare Beams takes a shocking moment out of true history, and brings it to life. You want to know how horrifying things happened while decent people looked on and did nothing? Read this novel. I believed every nuance of these characters’ thoughts, the conflicts waging war inside their own minds, their devastation, and their courage. I was immensely moved by this story, and the people who populate its pages.”
—Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes
“Narrated from a painfully intimate perspective, The Illness Lesson explores the consequences of an outrageous medical treatment inflicted upon adolescent girls in 1870’s New England to cure “hysteria.” In Clare Beams’s luminous and suspenseful prose, the unspeakable is spoken, falteringly at first, then with triumphant strength. Its timeliness will be evident to readers for whom the suppression of female sexuality/ identity is an ongoing and urgent issue.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, author of Pursuit