After the stunning success of "Bee Season," Myla Goldberg's second novel is here, and it is somewhat elusive and not entirely satisfying. All the...
by Myla Goldberg
Doubleday, 326 pp., $24.95
After the stunning success of “Bee Season,” Myla Goldberg’s second novel is here, and it is somewhat elusive and not entirely satisfying.
All the proper elements are present in “Wickett’s Remedy”: a winning heroine, Lydia Kilkenny; a well-researched examination of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918; and a convoluted sub-plot turning Wickett’s Remedy from a patent medicine to a soft drink. But the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The story lies flat on the page, with none of the spark of “Bee Season.” Perhaps it was Eliza Naumann, the 9-year-old wunderkind speller of Goldberg’s debut, who made the difference.
Lydia Kilkenny grew up in South Boston but is determined to leave it for a better life. She works as a clerk in a downtown department store where she meets the young hypochondriacal med student, Henry Wickett. Their courtship is brief, consisting mostly of captivating letters Henry writes to Lydia.
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Shortly after their marriage, Henry impulsively quits medical school. Lydia is devastated; Henry is ecstatic. He will finally be able to pursue some semblance of the work he wanted — journalism. After failing the Army physical, he decides to pursue a career as a different kind of healer: he will sell Wickett’s Remedy and send a curative letter with each bottle. His plan is cut short when he contracts influenza and quickly dies.
Liddie returns to Southie, where everything is going rapidly downhill. The unstoppable spread of flu is decimating the neighborhood and strikes at the heart of Liddie’s family. She goes to the County Hospital to help out one day, and a new realization overtakes her. She can be of help to people, even if she only gives them a sip of water. And helping people satisfies her need for intimacy, as nothing ever has. She answers an ad in the paper for nurses on Gallup’s Island, where an experimental study on how influenza is transmitted will be conducted on human subjects. The study is desperate for help, so even though she has no training, she is accepted.
Once on the island, the full realization of what is happening hits her, releasing all her compassion and sadness for the men who will purposely be made ill. They are all Navy convicts, volunteers who believe that life will be better anywhere but in the Deer Island Naval Prison. The study is a turning point for Lydia, however, who finds happiness there after a long time with no joy in her life.
Meanwhile, Wickett’s Remedy is in the hands of Liddie’s business partner, who has turned it into a very successful soda pop. The fate of the soda pop, Liddie’s investment and her partner are all woven into the story through letters and company newsletters, as well as newspaper articles chronicling events of the day.
There is also a Greek chorus of the Dead, written in the margin of most pages. Their comments are pungent, corrective, funny and sad. Despite all that Goldberg has going on in this novel, it fails to hang together in any compelling way.