The Fever Tree
Jennifer McVeigh
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Buy *The Fever Tree* by Jennifer McVeighonline

The Fever Tree
Jennifer McVeigh
352 pages
March 2013
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Fever Tree.

It's such a disservice to describe a novel as similar to Out of Africa or the iconic Gone with the Wind. Other than the era—London circa 1880—McVeigh's novel stands on its own, her flawed heroine a product of the culture that has groomed her. From a wealthy family, her mother chooses an Irishman below expectations for a husband. When her young mother dies, little Frances is raised by a doting father with all the advantages he can give her, even enjoying some interactions with her maternal relatives. At the time of her father's death, Frances is unprepared to engage with the world, pampered and assuming the entitlements of a class denied her with his shameful bankruptcy and fall from grace.

When physician Edwin Matthews, formerly mentored by her father, approaches Frances with a request to make her his wife, she is loath to accept the proposal of a man she considers beneath her. But the alternative is even more horrible: to be added to the household of an aunt, destined for virtual servitude caring for the woman's three small children. Reluctantly, Frances agrees to marry Edwin, who promptly leaves for his posting in South Africa where he is working to contain a recent smallpox epidemic that has broken out in the country. Assuming a new freedom in South Africa, far from the humiliation of her father's reputation, Frances steps into her future.

One might expect Frances to be somewhat unprepared for a life without the luxuries she has grown used to, but she chafes as the terms of her ocean passage with the Female Middle Class Emigrant Society, envious of the first-class passengers. Already she is half in love with the dashing William Westbrook, traveling to attend his business at the Kimberley mines. Edwin fares poorly in comparison to such a man as William, rich, successful and adventurous. When William encourages her ardor on the voyage, Frances allows herself to imagine a different future, one with romance and without hardship. She is devastated when the ship arrives and they are separated. She is eventually forced to travel to the rural posting where Edwin has provided a maid but little else to ease her into her new life in another country.

Overwhelmed with her husband's inadequacies and her own discomfort, Frances is only peripherally aware of the turmoil around her. Dreaming of William, she is oblivious to Edwin's struggles on behalf of patients affected by the smallpox epidemic and the poverty endemic to the country. A move to Kimberly brings her face to face with the chaos, the wholesale plundering of Africa's natural resources, the Kimberley mines with their infamous "blood diamonds," the financial dynasty of an Englishman who can ruin Matthews if he continues to harangue a resistant public about a smallpox epidemic. Greed is in the air, and Matthews is in the way. A meeting with William throws Frances into turmoil. Forced to choose between men, her decision is hardly surprising but disappointing. But that is the way with this character. No Scarlett O'Hara, Frances Matthews is made of thinner stock, determined to learn the hard way.

That she does learn, and in a country that demands every ounce of will to survive, is a testament to the author's ability to turn a selfish, immature woman into one who finds self-respect through her own belated initiative, who struggles to become more that she is meant for and to deserve the forgiveness of the man she married, despite her egregious behavior as his wife. The novel encompasses every extreme: greed, exploitation, brutality, bloodshed, passion desperation. But Africa also has great natural beauty and a human history that is still evolving, even after the brief time of Frances Matthews, the girl who comes from London to marry a stranger and becomes a woman in love with her destination.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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