38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
In 1996, Andrea Barrett's National Book Award-winning story collection SHIP FEVER was published to great critical acclaim. Apparently, book reviewers and readers were not the only ones who found much to treasure in this collection of stories that explore history, science and nature. Barrett herself has returned again and again to the characters and themes she introduced in that collection. From the brilliant novel VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL to her most recent collection, 2002's SERVANTS OF THE MAP, Barrett has created what amounts to a whole extended family of characters whose passions, desires and ambitions surface and resurface in her fiction.
Now, with her new book THE AIR WE BREATHE, Barrett offers readers another interconnected historical novel (this one is set in 1916) that feels simultaneously historically grounded and accurate in its facts and absolutely contemporary and relevant in its themes. It's set in Tamarack State, a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondack region of northern New York State. A public institution for indigent patients, the hospital (unlike the genteel convalescent homes for wealthy invalids) houses mostly immigrants, recent transplants to the United States from places like Russia, eastern Europe and Germany. Many of these patients, like newly-arrived Leo Marburg, were professionals or highly skilled workers in the old country. Here, though, they are treated as common laborers --- or, eventually, as worse.
Into this milieu comes Miles Fairchild, an industrialist and amateur paleontologist. He's staying down the road at one of the convalescent homes, but he's eager to start a Wednesday afternoon conversation group at Tamarack State. From its origins as a small group of patients listening to Miles's natural history lecures, the group expands, allowing its members not only the opportunity to socialize but also to recapture the lives and knowledge they knew before.
This idyllic environment, however, is doomed to failure. Not only are its members truly ill, but world events are conspiring against it as well. The United States has just entered World War I, and national loyalties are constantly tested. When unrequited love, jealousy and suspicion collide, tragedy cannot be far behind.
Unlike much of Barrett's previous fiction, THE AIR WE BREATHE does not take place on a grand scale or involve groundbreaking discoveries or epic voyages. Instead, it takes place on a small canvas, indeed, set almost entirely within the walls of the sanatorium. In fact, the whole novel, like its setting, is restrained. Barrett still includes her trademark fascination with scientific and sensual passions alike, using both historical fact and stylistic conventions to evoke a particular time and place.
Barrett also plays skillfully with style here, utilizing a first-person plural narrator to represent the collective convalescents who narrate the novel's events. Fluid, quickly shifting perspectives move from this weary "we" to an omniscient third-person point of view that probes into the minds and histories of all its characters. Rewarding both longtime readers who will recognize the mention of familiar names and thoughtful readers who will marvel at her stylistic facility, THE AIR WE BREATHE will leave Barrett's readers reflecting on how her themes of war, suspicion and intolerance still offer contemporary relevance nearly a century after the novel's setting.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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Set at Tamarack State Hospital for tuberculosis patients in July, 1916, Andrea Barrett's sensitive and moving novel creates an intimate atmosphere in which the patients become a microcosm for the attitudes, social pressures, and political movements of the country at large. Consisting primarily of immigrants who have been isolated from their families, the inhabitants are essentially alone, dealing with their illness on the strength of the values they have brought to the sanatorium.
Among these patients is Leo Marburg, a twenty-six-year-old from Lithuania with a background in science which he has never been able to use in America. Ephraim Kotov, his Russian roommate, a former shopkeeper, has been living in a utopian community of apple growers. Miles Fairchild, a wealthy American industrialist recuperating in a private cottage, has more freedom than the inhabitants of the sanitorium, but he is just as isolated and lonely. It is Miles, seeking intellectual stimulation, who suggests, on a visit to the sanitorium, that the patients meet once a week to share their past lives and interests. Talks on paleontology, evolution, gas warfare in France, the history of utopian communities, the "new"poetry of writers like Carl Sandburg, and the "new" music of Stravinsky and Moussorgsky keep the patients mentally alive, even as they are required to rest, avoid excitement, and recuperate.
The quiet life at Tamarack State is upset by three plot lines, which eventually converge. First, a young relative of Ephraim brings "incendiary" anarchist literature to the hospital and asks Ephraim to hide it for him. Secondly, Miles falls in love with a young caretaker who not only does not return his feelings but who loves Leo. Thirdly, a major fire destroys part of the hospital, the burning X-ray films creating a deadly gas. Leo, connected to all three subplots, comes under suspicion when the American Protective League investigates.
The point of view alternates between the objective third person, telling the basic story of the characters, and a first person plural--a narrative "we"--which develops to tell the story of the collective inner feelings of the inhabitants of the hospital as their lives become more complicated by love, loss, and suspicion. Barrett's sensitivity to the time period, with the growing labor movement, war fever, and medical advances (especially the mysterious X-ray) is also reflected in her attention to characterization as each character asks "Who am I, and how do I make a life that is meaningful?" Though the novel is set in 1916, its themes are universal, and its characters' problems are timeless. Beautifully paced and emotionally moving, this novel adds complexity to the themes which Barrett has developed in previous novels. n Mary Whipple
Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer (Modern Library Exploration)
Servants of the Map: Stories
Biography - Barrett, Andrea (1954-): An article from: Contemporary Authors