The idea of a viral outbreak isn’t exactly new, but The Flu by Jaqueline Druga is anything but typical. It maintains a level of distinction even beyond the apocalyptic and outbreak thriller genres.
A particularly deadly strain of the flu escapes a facility in Alaska, and by chance and relayed through expertly executed dramatic irony, the virus makes it to Barrow. Then it hitches a ride with a journalist to LA, and well, you know how this goes. Druga spares us an attempt at building suspense through being coy here. We know there’s an outbreak, and she spends only enough time to set it up and make it feel legitimate and authentic without feeling tiring or exhaustive.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Lodi, Ohio, people are going on about their lives, feeling safe from the events they’re hearing about on the news but which are thousands of miles away. And here is one note of distinction for The Flu. Unlike a typical thriller, Druga features a strong character element, ultimately making the story exceptionally relateable. Titling the novel “The Flu” is almost a tactic in misdirection in that this is not so much a story about a viral outbreak as it is about lovably crafted characters and how they fare in the face of that challenge. You might think this isn’t such an important distinction, but it is. There’s depth here. Druga makes us fall in love with the people she’s created, and as a result, we feel their pains as they suffer, their joys as they succeed. As a result, The Flu is an exceptionally powerful entry in the genre.
Mick, the main protagonist, is somewhat a stereotype, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t endearing or interesting. He is the selfless hero, the reluctant leader, the rebel with authority, but Druga writes him with such passion—as she does with all of her characters—that he feels real. It isn’t what or who he is that pulls us in. It’s how we see him, the light in which he’s been cast.
As the flu advances and the world descends, we fear for the small town of Lodi, and there is a point in the story where The Flu almost seems to drag in development. But Druga does something so few writers do. She exhibits patience in building her story. That isn’t to say the story feels uneventful. That is to say, compared to the rush and raw emotional power at this novel’s high points, the development points may seem that way; however, they are entertaining and moving in their own way, and they amplify and deepen the overall experience.
There’s another element to The Flu that is exceptional, however: its authenticity and plausibility. If The Flu’s strongest asset is its ability to humanize the storyline with rich characters, the other end of that spectrum is a presentation of technical details. In these kinds of stories, writers often fall victim to the presentation of the science behind it all in an attempt to build legitimacy. Druga strikes a balance here so that it is interesting and authentic without ever threatening text-book boredom.
If you’re looking for a viral outbreak thriller that gives credence to the human element of a pandemic and takes you on a powerful, emotional ride, The Flu is a good bet.