Review: ‘Fever Tree’ a sweet, simple debut novel

  • Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2013 12:01 a.m.

THE FEVER TREE. By Jennifer McVeigh. Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. 432 pages. $25.95.

Jennifer McVeigh’s first novel, “The Fever Tree,” is a lovely one. It’s lovely in the way of a beach sunset or a spring day or a rest under a shady tree with a glass of lemonade.

It’s the story of Frances, who’s forced to abandon her upper-class life in late 19th-century England after her father dies. Left with no means of support, Frances travels to South Africa to marry Edwin, an old family friend and physician.

At one point, Frances rages: “I can pin my hair in five different styles; I can paint, embroider, and play the piano; but what else can I do?”

It’s all quite accessible and tremendously appealing — like that lemonade or sunset.

McVeigh’s story line isn’t new or compelling, but “The Fever Tree” is a page turner. Her prose is well put-together, like a woman who’s aging gracefully. The South African landscape is vivid, but her characters aren’t deep or complicated. Nor is the plot. There are bad guys and good guys.

The one element that’s unique to this novel is the description of the deceit wrought upon the locals by mine owners in Kimberley, who lied about a smallpox outbreak. McVeigh says she was inspired by reading a canvas-bound diary written by a doctor who witnessed the two-year epidemic that killed thousands of Africans.

Perhaps “The Fever Tree” could have risen to “Out of Africa” quality with more research or more realistic, less predictable characters. Instead, it remains what it is: a lovely but ultimately forgettable read.

Reviewer Kim Curtis is a writer for The Associated Press.

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