Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)
Length: 418 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The leading author of the medical thriller genre, Dr Robin Cook, returns with another eye-opening and deeply relevant novel, Viral, that takes a deep an unsettling look at America’s healthcare system and the grim horrors that could strike anyone.
Robin Cook is an interesting author who has been one of the most unique writers of thriller fiction for years. A doctor and former member of the United States Navy, Cook made his debut back in 1972 with The Year of the Intern, a medical drama about the pressures of a young doctor. He then followed it up with his first thriller in 1977, Coma, which featured criminal activities within a hospital. Since then, Cook has written over 30 additional thrillers, nearly all of which feature either medical elements or doctors as the protagonists. Cook’s catalogue of works features a huge collection of standalone reads, as well as his long-running Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series, and all of them contain an interesting array of plots. I have been meaning to try out some of Cook’s novels for a while and I finally got a chance a few weeks ago when I received a copy of his latest novel, Viral, which contained a deep and powerful story.
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, former police officer Brian Murphy and his family take the opportunity to have a well-deserved vacation. After several days of relaxing times at the beach and night-time cookouts, the fun comes to an end as Brian’s wife, Emma, comes down with severe flu-like symptoms. Fearing COVID, the family returns to New York, only for Emma to suffer a traumatic seizure in the car, forcing them to the emergency room.
It soon becomes apparent that Emma is suffering from a rare and lethal disease known as eastern equine encephalitis, likely brought on by mosquito bites while at the beach. As the doctors work to save Emma’s life, Brian is forced to contend with another major shock when he receives a cripplingly expensive hospital bill, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. With his business already failing due to COVID, Brian is unable to cope with the inflated bill before him, and turns to his insurance company for help, only to be blindsided when they reject his claim on arbitrary grounds.
Forced to try and come up with the money to pay for his wife’s bills, Brian dives into the shocking world of corrupt healthcare and insurance, discovering the insidious legal practice of overcharging patients and not providing insurance coverage. Already on a knife edge due to his wife’s condition, Brian is determined to fight this injustice. However, there is little he can legally do, especially with every procedure adding more to his immense debt. But when his daughter also begins showing symptoms, and his wife’s care is being negatively impacted by his financial position, Brian will be driven to seek justice another way.
Viral is an intense and extremely fascinating novel that I had an interesting time reading. Cook has come up with an extremely fast-paced narrative here that dives into compelling contemporary issues. This results in quite an exciting and addictive read that I found to be particularly distinctive and memorable.
Cook has written a pretty cool story for Viral that takes the reader on a harrowing and dramatic ride. While it has a bit of a slow start, mostly to set up the characters and the situation, it does not take long for the book to get crazy, with the protagonist’s wife getting sick and rushed to hospital very quickly. What follows is an agonising thrill-ride of emotion as she gets sicker, while the protagonist is forced to deal with a series of disruptive situations as the hospital and the insurance company take turns to bleed him for money and impact his wife’s health. Due to Cook’s realistic portrayal of certain modern phenomena involving healthcare and finance, Viral ended up being a pretty terrifying read that was in some ways scarier than a horror novel. There are some very traumatic moments scattered throughout the novel, and two big tragedies occurring in the central part of the story result in some significant changes in the story direction. The last third of the book is pretty fast-paced and shows a protagonist tipped to the edge, attempting to find justice the only way he knows how. I rather liked how Cook ended the novel, and it was certainly fascinating the way that he utilised thriller elements to conclude what had previously been more of a medical drama. This is a really good narrative, and found myself getting quite drawn into it, especially as Cook paints such a vivid picture of the medical issues and the various problems surrounding them. I did have some issues with some character interactions and dialogue, as a lot of the communication and discussions seemed a bit unnatural to me. I also had a very hard time connecting with any of the characters featured in the novel, as they were a little one-dimensional. Still, the intense and compelling narrative more than made up for it and I had a wonderful time getting through this book.
I really appreciated the deep examinations of certain medical aspects throughout Viral, and this includes Cook’s fascinating look at viruses, pandemics, and infections. Cook is a master of examining medical concerns, including pandemics (Pandemic was the name of one of his previous books, released in December 2018), and while I will admit to a certain internal exhaustion at stories concerning pandemics (a sentiment I am sure many others share), I think he did a pretty good job of featuring these aspects here. Viral contains a range of interesting medical elements, such as examining the social and financial impacts COVID-19 had on New York, with multiple characters suffering because of it. Cook also takes the time to try and terrify his readers by highlighting what diseases he believes are going to impact us next. In particular, he focuses on eastern equine encephalitis, a disease transmitted to humans from mosquitoes. Not only does Cook take the time to highlight just how deadly and disruptive eastern equine encephalitis is, but he also explains early on in the novel that diseases like encephalitis are likely to be much more common in the future due to climate change and increased mosquito migration patterns. This focus on medical issues, especially surrounding eastern equine encephalitis, proves to be pretty scary, and I know that I am going to be a little more wary of any mosquitoes I see in the future.
While you would think that the part of the book looking at deadly diseases and crazy new infections would be the scariest part of this novel, it is Cook’s examination of the American healthcare system that is the most horrifying. Throughout the course of Viral, the protagonist experiences firsthand how ruinous it can be to fall sick, when he is hit with a massively inflated bill after rushing his wife to the hospital. The situation only degrades even further when his new health insurance company continues to reject his claims and the company controlling the hospital immediately starts a lawsuit to get their money back. This takes the protagonist and the reader on a deep and intense dive into the current realities of the American healthcare system, including hospitals, medical billing, private health companies and health insurance agencies, and how they combine to cause major problems for sick people and their families. There is a focus on how most hospitals are run for profit these days, artificially inflating their bills to get the most money. At the same time, there is an examination of how insurance companies are offering bogus coverage, with multiple hidden clauses that make it possible for them to reject claims for the most ridiculous of reasons. This examination of the healthcare system soon becomes the major focus of Viral’s plot, as the problems associated with it soon prove to be more lethal than the eastern equine encephalitis. Cook is very critical of how the healthcare system is being allowed to operate in America, and it was fascinating and disturbing to see his impressions of it, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. This proved to be a very intriguing and powerful inclusion to this novel, and readers are guaranteed to come out of it with a pressing need to review their insurance policies to make sure the same thing won’t happen to them.
Overall, Viral by Robin Cook proved to be an excellent and memorable medical thriller with a lot of fantastic features to it. I deeply appreciated the way in which Cook takes the time to focus on contemporary issues, including his look at viral diseases and current issues with the American healthcare system. While I did have some issues with Cook’s writing style, Viral ended up being a really intriguing and realistic novel that will leave most readers with an intense sense of unease. A very eye-opening book that has made me very curious about some of Cook’s other medical thrillers.
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