Review of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Novel, by Caroline T. Anderson
Posted Mar 02 2011 12:00am
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Novel is a self-published work written with the intention of raising awareness about CFS. This is a good thing, and I commend the journalist working under the pseudonym Caroline T. Anderson for her compassionate intentions. Like most self-published books, however, the work needs considerable editing. It could also use quite a bit of rewriting to flesh out the characters, who tend to be stereotypes, and I would have liked to see it expanded to tie up several loose threads.
The novel is fun for a person with CFS/ME to read because the book has a happy ending. Furthermore, it is a very short novel, 160 pages, large print, double-spaced.
As narrator, Anderson clearly identified with the heroine of the book, the financial journalist Alistair McKenney, who lives in a small town in Ohio on a farm, tending to her horses and chickens as she writes and researches for a financial daily.
It will probably annoy you, as it did mean, to read through the many boring quotations at the beginning of the book, most from researchers claiming CFS is a psychosomatic illness. Indeed, the conflict in the novel centers on what the CDC, in cahoots with insurance companies and their paid ‘research’ scientists, are willing to do to prevent CFS from being identified as an organic illness of viral origin. In a scene where Alistair confronts the CEO of a big insurance company, she reveals the hypocrisy and cruelty of their policy to deny payment for lab work and MRI’s that would show viruses and brain lesions while denying disability to the same individuals for failing to prove that they have a true illness.
The novel starts slowly as we meet Alistair, a single mother with teenagers, researching the strange illness that has floored a high percentage of people in her small town, most of them women. The more Alistair discovers about the CFS cover-up, the more determined she becomes to publish something about it. She educates the only physician in town who is trying to treat the afflicted patients, and inspires this physician/friend to put her patients on anti-virals. Her teenage kids get involved in the research, being internet whizzes like all teenagers, as do several adults in town, who gather at Alistair's house at night with their laptops looking for information to connect the dots between what seems to be a conspiracy to prevent CFS from being studied and treated. The ostensible motivation for this evil collusion of government and insurance company is greed. The insurance companies don’t want to pay out claims for a million to four million Americans. The CDC's motivation is not clear.
The story gets exciting about p. 50, when websites the researchers have bookmarked start disappearing overnight, and the next day, a black Mercedes swerves onto Alistair’s farm stopping a few feet from her pond. Immediately, I knew the guy was trouble (if you’re slower to catch on, the author gives you lots of signs, like the pregnant mare taking an instant disliking to him), but our heroine is taken with the driver’s good looks and begins dating him. As the story progresses, the handsome mean guy tries to discourage her from moving forward with her story on the conspiracy while she, a gutsy heroine, becomes all the more determined. I won’t give away the rest of the plot, except to say that there are several exciting encounters between Alistair, this guy, and the insurance company whose stock will plunge in value once her story is published in the financial newspaper.
One conceptual problem with the story is that Big Pharma is nowhere to be seen. If antivirals were as effective as Anderson makes them out to be in the novel -- returning everyone in town to active lives --Big Pharma would be seeing billion dollar signs in the profits they’d make from getting their drugs approved as standard treatment for this illness. They have the money and the political clout to accomplish this. Yet we know that, while some people are helped immensely with anti-virals (see Martin Lerner’s work at http://www.treatmentcenterforcfs.com/ ), many cannot tolerate them, get worse on them, or take them without improving at all.
I wished the author had taken the time to educate herself more about the illness and its diverse manifestations. I wish she had found a way to show the difficulties patients with this illness experience in their daily lives, and in their search for understanding and treatment. The patients are minor characters on the side lines, just as CFS patients are in real life. The reader never gets to know a person with CFS as a human with hopes and feelings and conflicts. Alistair is full of energy and grit, We root for her because we want to be like her -- idealistic, courageous and determined.