Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published: April 2016
Genre: adult fiction, historical fiction
July 1945. Miklos is a twenty-five-year-old Hungarian who has survived the camps and has been brought to Sweden to convalesce. His doctor has just given him a death sentence — his lungs are filled with fluid and in six months he will be gone. But Miklos has other plans. He didn’t survive the war only to drown from within, and so he wages war on his own fate. He acquires the names of the 117 Hungarian women also recovering in Sweden, and he writes a letter to each of them in his beautiful cursive hand. One of these women, he is sure, will become his wife. In another part of the country, Lili reads his letter and decides to write back. For the next few months, the two engage in a funny, absurd, hopeful epistolary dance. Eventually, they find a way to meet.
Determined to survive long after the brutal war in concentration camps, Miklos devises a plan to make the most of his life and fight against the fluid building up in his lungs. He writes beautiful letters to 117 Hungarian women who are also recovering in hospitals in Sweden, with hopes that at least one of them may become his wife. Lili, recovering in a hospital across the country, reads his letter and writes back on a whim. Over the next six months, as Lili regains her strength and Miklos battles a ticking clock, the pair fall in love. But falling in love through words is a dangerous game, for how will they ever meet in person? Standing up against hospital policies and fighting against their own health, Miklos and Lili will do whatever it takes to be together and start life anew.
Translated fiction is usually hit or miss with me. The language can feel stilted or ridiculous, and as a result it keeps me at a distance from the narrative. But this one is definitely a hit. Though there were moments when it was painfully obviously this was a translated work, I cannot stress enough how easy it was to gloss over that little bump and continue falling head over heels into the story. And that’s what we’re all after, right? Right.
Miklos is a such a twenty-five-year-old guy. The doctor tells him he’s going to die in six months, and what does Miklos do? Plan a future with a woman, any woman, who writes back to his letters. But unlike other twenty-something guys, the war has made him humble. His mind is full of spirit but his body is on the mend, he loves to smile but his metal teeth frighten people, he has such passion for intellect and beauty that it can sometimes be intense. His mind draws Lili in, and her heart, spirit, and mind draw him to her. He wasn’t going to fall for any woman who wrote back – he was going to fall for her. No question.
There are so many moments that resonate with contemporary love stories that it’s no wonder this has been published and translated into so many languages. Trade letters for tweets or online dating messages, trade hospitals for countries, trade phone calls to skype chats, and you have this story again. But what makes this such a gem is the determination for starting over and creating a better life, a new life, after all the death and destruction these two witnessed, lived, and survived so young. Toss in the fact this is based on the author’s own parents’ stories and letters, and you’re in for a teary ride.
If you’re looking for a story that unfolds slowly, told with humor and heart, you’ll find that with Fever at Dawn.
Thank you, NetGalley, for providing the advance copy from HMH for review!