As precise and perfectly tempered as a scientific experiment, Barrett sets her subtle tour de force in Tamarack Lake in the Adirondacks circa 1916. Dedicated to the cure of tubercular patients, Tamarack State offers a rigid schedule of enforced rest and exposure to the pure mountain air in an effort to clear the diseased lungs of the fortunate few assigned a limited number of beds. While cities are teeming with unrest, a growing immigrant population and their penchant for socialist doctrine, overcrowding, poverty and the demand for unionization of factories, World War I draws ever closer, Germany as yet uncommitted to war with the United States. But the signs grow ominous as the restive days pass for the ill, held captive to their cure, the rules strictly enforced: "no talking... no smoking, no laughing, no singing, no reading, no writing."
Some relief comes from a wealthy patient catered to in Mrs. Martin's cabin, Miles Fairchild, at thirty-seven older than most; Miles establishes a weekly salon to discuss his interest in paleontology. Assuming the acquiescence of the other attendees, Miles' pedantic lectures fail to ignite anyone's imagination save his own. However, the salon allows Martin's daughter, Naomi, an opportunity to earn money driving Miles to and from the event. Fixated on a young woman whose only desire is to escape from this stifling environment, Miles fails to appreciate Naomi's true nature, arrogantly believing she will be grateful for his attentions. She is not, reserving her affections for Leo Marburg, a trained chemist in Russia now reduced to whatever employment he can find in America. Once he steps from center stage, Miles' captive audience yields a bountiful harvest, patients buzzing with curiosity and an opportunity to use dormant intellects so rigidly controlled by the cure.
Certain personalities contribute to the ensuing drama, temporary hostages to fate: Irene, the radiologist who nurtures the inquisitiveness of others; Eudora, an enthusiastic maid, nurse and student of Irene's techniques; Naomi, longing for release while focusing on a man who is not interested; and Dr. Petrie, an unexpected hero who introduces the horrors of the battlefield to the salon. But it is Miles and Leo who form the crux of this novel: Miles, the self-indulgent scion of privilege using his influence to reward and punish; and Leo, intellectually curious as he is materially impoverished, undone by nascent generosity and a penchant for keeping to himself. Into the microcosm of Tamarack State, the ugliness of the war intrudes, the terrible destruction and patriotic paranoia that eviscerates freedom in the name of security.
In Barrett's beautifully rendered novel of despair, hope and hubris, privilege clashes with the realities of immigrant America at the beginning of the 20th century, individuals caught unaware, diseases of the soul far more insidious than those of the body: "We'd contributed to destroying our own world." Luan Gaines/2007.