If you’ve never thought much about typhoid epidemics, you’re not alone; I certainly hadn’t until I read Contagion, which is set in Philadelphia during the late autumn epidemic of 1895. With such an unlikely scenario, Dahme introduces us to young Rose Dugan, married to financier Patrick Dugan. Rose’s purpose in life seems to be as an ornament to her powerful husband, who is determined to force city officials to hire his company for water filtration in order to prevent more typhoid outbreaks. When events start to take a deadly turn, Rose begins to question her husband’s involvements, both politically and socially, and it is to Sean Parker, an engineer with the Water Works, she turns to help her learn the truth.
Told in chapters alternating the points of view of Rose and Sean, Contagion follows the dealings of Dugan as he attempts to secure the filtration rights, and the ominous situations in which Rose finds herself. Though she wants to believe her husband is a good man, the evidence keeps stacking against him; Sean knows Patrick is underhanded, and his interest in Rose grows as he sees her struggling to admit Patrick’s flaws. There is deceit on many levels, and Rose begins to wonder when she beholds the magnificent mausoleum her husband has built whether or not it’s for her own early demise.
There is a lot of technical jargon in Contagion, which focuses on the intricacies of the water supply in the late 1800s. The typhoid epidemic is almost secondary; the title could apply to several different types of contagion, including greed and subterfuge. I never quite warmed up to the naive Rose, and felt the characters were sometimes one-dimensional. Still, it’s an interesting plot with enough twists to keep the reader fully engaged.