Clare Beams opens her unusual and transporting first novel, “The Illness Lesson” with epigraphs from Louisa May Alcott and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott. These set the stage for a tale that unfolds on a farm in Massachusetts in 1871, with a premise and characters that recall the life and work of both Alcotts.

But before we go any further: This is Alcott meets Shirley Jackson, with a splash of Margaret Atwood. It’s dark, quirky and even titillating, in a somewhat appalling way.

Like the senior Alcott, the fictional Samuel Hood is an essayist and educator. He is undaunted by the failure of a transcendental community he founded. Samuel dusts himself off and opens a school, an institution for girls called the School of the Trilling Heart. The name comes from a blood-red bird first identified on the premises that wings through the novel ominously.

Samuel’s only child, Caroline, is a version of Jo March— bright, strong-willed, self-reliant, devoted to her father — she even has the famous hair, “a deep dark forest” of it. Caroline’s intellect and innately feminist understanding of the world suffuse the tone of the narration: None of the myriad ways men are privileged over women escape Caroline’s notice, including the work of her own father.

Announcing his plan, Samuel proclaims, “No one, no one, has done this before. Formed girls into women who can become their own best selves, who can be true partners to their husbands and true mothers to their children. . . . We’ll teach thinking, not sewing or physical graces, not shallow parlor trick erudition.”

“Samuel Hood, essayist,” Caroline thinks, shaking her head at her father’s pomposity and self-importance. Good thing he has come along to pave women’s way from cultivated ignorance to enlightened servitude.

Assisting Samuel with the school is a young acolyte from Ohio named David, with whom Caroline is utterly smitten. Every interaction between them is seismic. When his name is used in a sentence, it sounds louder than all the other words. When he puts his hand on Caroline’s upper arm, the “skin beneath her sleeve greeted that weight joyously, and he met her eyes, and his were wide, and his fingers tightened as if to pin this joy between them, at this meeting point of their bodies.”

David will teach natural history and mathematics; Samuel, classical languages; and the two men will share moral philosophy and history. Caroline will teach only English literature. As usual, Caroline mordantly assesses the import of this division of labor: “Though [she] was meant to be a walking embodiment of the school’s aims, that didn’t mean her feminine fingers belonged in its meatier pies.”

The first class at Trilling Heart is seven 14-year-old girls — Rebecca, Tabitha, Livia, Felicity, Julia, Abigail and Margaret — until a last-minute eighth appears, begs admission, and goes on to give Caroline good cause to wish she had never seen her. Eliza Pearson Bell is the daughter of one of the residents of Samuel’s erstwhile utopian community, who wrote a “supernatural” novel called “The Darkening Glass,” based closely on the community, with a cruel villain representing Samuel, a beautiful, victimized wife representing Caroline’s mother, and Eliza’s father as the lovelorn hero.

The first chance she gets, the cool little Bell girl tries to embarrass Samuel by bringing up her father’s notorious book. Within days, the thick, black novel is being passed around the student body — “the black mark of a spreading plague” — and the girls are thrilling to the possibilities of comparison. They are also thrilling to the possibilities of their young male teacher, David, with a flirty, innocent passion that recalls the relationship between the March girls and their neighbor Laurie.

And then, during a nature hike, Eliza disappears. “Caroline saw her before anyone else. From a distance, Eliza on the grass looked like a piece of discarded clothing, a summer-white wrap thrown off in the warmth or blown from a clothesline.” But nothing identifiable seems to have caused Eliza’s fainting spell, and the mystery persists as she and the other girls all develop strange, debilitating symptoms — rashes, vision problems, fits, headaches. Caroline is shocked when she too feels her hand going numb.

And then, and then— a lot of things happen. Two new characters arrive on the scene, both with serious ramifications for the lovelorn and sickened female populace of Trilling Heart. The roof literally caves in under the weight of one of the trilling hearts’ strange, heavy nests, dense with twigs, grasses, feathers and purloined ribbons and strands of hair.

Beams, whose previous book, “We Show What We Have Learned,” won the Bard Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, here devises a series of creepy events and phenomena that balance on the edge between realism and ghost story. And there are scenes that will make you think of the Ceremony in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — which, as you know, is very far from “Little Women.”

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”


By Clare Beams

Doubleday. 288 pp. $26.95