Book Review: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

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Rating: 3.5 / 5

Frances Irvine has accepted a marriage proposal from Edwin Matthews, even though she has no feelings for him, and will have to move from England to South Africa. Her father has recently died, but his latest investments have left his estate mired in debt, and therefore Frances is left penniless. She has an uncle who is titled and wealthy, but refuses to take her in, so her only other option besides moving to South Africa would be to become a nursemaid for another relative.

On her voyage to South Africa, she falls in love with the attractive William Westbrook, who comes off as independent, spontaneous, adventurous, and a trailblazer. Though she marries Edwin, she does not believe she will ever come to like him, let alone love him.  Especially since she pines after William everyday. In Africa, the living conditions are worse than she expected.  Edwin is stationed in Reitforum, seemingly miles away from civilization.  There is no indoor plumbing, no markets, and, Frances believes, nothing for her to do.  Edwin is a doctor notorious for believing that a smallpox epidemic making its way through the Kimberley labor camps.  The man who runs the camps and has the most invested in it happens to be Westbrook’s cousin.  If it is confirmed that the illness the laborers are facing is indeed smallpox, the natives will flee, shutting down mining operations.  Therefore, mine owners have a strong vested interest in covering up the epidemic. The only doctor that believes this is in fact smallpox is Edwin, making him unpopular and putting himself and Frances in harm’s way.

The Fever Tree centers around Frances, and since she is such an unlikable character, it does a disservice to the bigger issue at hand, namely, the greed, injustice, and disregard for human life found during the diamond rush in South Africa. From the very first pages, Frances comes off as a petulant child, and doesn’t change much throughout the novel.  At the very end, she does seem like she finally matures, and has a “come to Jesus” moment, but by that time, its hard for the reader to care.  However flawed Frances is, and throughout all of her bad decisions, I did sympathize with her situation.  I still found her highly spoiled and unlikable, but in the 1880s, women were reliant on men, and did not seek more than a rudimentary education or a career outside of being a wife and mother.   So while it is easy to judge Frances and characterize her as self-absorbed and immature, societal mores of the time dictated that she was supposed to seek someone who would provide a life of luxury for her.

I wish McVeigh spent less time on Frances and more on the political and economic forces driving the diamond industry, especially the conspiracy to mislabel smallpox as a less contagious, rare illness in order to keep the mines operating. The exploitation of the workers, the racial clashes, and the greed that was prevalent during this period are utterly fascinating, and I can’t help but wish more of The Fever Tree focused on these aspects rather than Frances’s slow personal growth.

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