1871. In Ashwell, Massachusetts, at the farm of Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, a mysterious flock of red birds descends. Samuel, whose fame as a philosopher has waned in recent years, takes the birds' appearance as an omen that the time is ripe for his newest venture. He will start a school for young women, guiding their intellectual development as he has so carefully guided his daughter's.
The Illness Lesson...is an astonishing book. Its opening paragraph establishes tone, and that tone is notable: a mix of closely observed physical gesture and spiritual abstraction ... The novel’s plot is slowly paced but with a gathering horror and in the Gothic mode ... There’s enough suspense and mystery engendered—What to make of those beautiful and vengeful birds?—so the plot-twist of the ending should be kept a surprise. Suffice it to say that Beams shows a kind of mastery in yoking the natural to the surreal and linking grief and fear to rage.
... part horror, part case study and — I mean this as a compliment — part feminist polemic ... Reading The Illness Lesson is like watching someone with superior intelligence work out a proof. If I felt a tinge of sorrow that its characters did not necessarily surprise me, the satisfaction in seeing a problem so flawlessly worked out was a worthy substitute ... The fog literally gets under their skin, and by the end of the novel, it also got under mine.
... provocative ... Beams excels in the details of this prescription. The sections on symptoms and their causes expose archaic misinformation and enforced misogyny ... Despite its finely wrought prose and incisive dialogue, The Illness Lesson is often overburdened by its obvious message and its telegraphed plot. Nevertheless, it is a scathing indictment of early toxic masculinity, a measured diatribe against male-dominated medical and educational institutions ... Ultimately, it is a blistering condemnation of a patriarchal society which would deter the empowerment of independent female thinking. It also suggests that sometimes a bird is just a bird. Except when it’s not.