The Speckled Monster is an unwieldy beast of a book. One part history lesson, one part multilayered drama, Jennifer Carrell uses painstaking research to recreate the tale of the devastating scourge of smallpox and two unsung heroes, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, who battled substantial social opposition to save their cities from the deadly scourge. The story details the horrors of smallpox through the interweaving tales of these two protagonists, starting off with a glimpse into the London high life of Lady Mary Wortley. From there it goes on to establish the upbringing of Dr. Zabdiel Boylston and his rise into the role of maverick surgeon in Boston. The rest of the book sees these two tales intertwining, providing historical and intimate perspectives of how smallpox took its toll on the people of London and Boston.
As a piece of historical fiction, The Speckled Monster manages to do its job as both a historical account and as a legitimate drama. The ‘historical’ side of the book is impressive to say the least. Carrell definitely did her research; close to fifty pages of the novel alone are dedicated to historical notes. Facts and events blend in with intricately reimagined events and dialogue between the key players in the smallpox saga. The integration works a bit too well; I found myself wishing that I could tell when fact ended and Carrell’s reimaginings began.
While reading the book, however, I felt that the 'drama' was lacking. Carrell starts off the book with a portrayal of the growing Lady Mary that comes off as a bit like a teen drama, with melodramatic, even angsty prose. This section definitely could have used some trimming at the very least so as to get into the more interesting smallpox years sooner. Overall the narrative felt too heavy on the subplots and personal drama; I found myself groaning when the momentum would stop to talk about Lady Mary’s strange relationship with Alexander Pope, or Mahler’s diary entries.
Carrell’s The Speckled Monster ultimately reads like a noble failure; while the history aspect of the book is quite compelling in its illustrating of how the smallpox scourge affected individual lives and social dynamics in London and Boston, the drama that Carrell crafts from the stories of Lady Mary and Zabdiel Boylston leaves much to be desired. The book is perfectly passable as afternoon reading, but if it’s just historical fact that you’re after, there are better sources on smallpox that will get the job done.