Air We Breathe: A Novel Hardcover – Sep 25 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Picking up connected characters from her 1996 National Book Award–winning story collection Ship Fever, the latest from Barrett follows her Pulitzer Prize finalist Servants of the Map. In the fall of 1916, as the U.S. involvement in WWI looms, the Adirondack town of Tamarack Lake houses a public sanitarium and private cure cottages for TB patients. Gossip about roommate changes, nurse visits, cliques and romantic connections dominate relations among the sick—mostly poor European immigrants—when they're not on their porches taking their rest cure. Intrigue increases with the arrival of Leo Marburg, an attractive former chemist from Odessa who has spent his years in New York slaving away at a sugar refinery, and of Miles Fairchild, a pompous and wealthy cure cottage resident who decides to start a discussion group, despite his inability to understand many of his fellow patients. As in Joshua Ferris's recent Then We Came to the End, Barrett narrates with a collective we, the voice of the crowd of convalescents. Details of New York tenements and of the sanitarium's regime are vivid and engrossing. The plot, which hinges on the coming of WWI, has a lock-step logic, but its transparency doesn't take away from the timeliness of its theme: how the tragedy, betrayal and heartbreak of war extend far beyond the battlefield. (Oct.)
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In 1916, the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I, a microcosm of world politics forms in upstate New York. Wealthy tuberculosis sufferers cure their lungs on private porches, while poor immigrants endure long stays at Tamarack State Sanatorium. Industrialist Miles Fairchild thinks each can learn from the other. He forms a high-minded discussion group but soon resents his marginalization as the poor patients find their voice as a group. (Indeed, there is a first-person-plural narrative refrain.) As war fever grows, the spirit of inquiry is threatened by another kind of groupthink: xenophobia. After an intricately blueprinted, random-yet-inevitable conflagration, the vigilante American Protective League, of which Miles is a member, targets hard-luck case Leo Marburg as a radical. Barrett's work often focuses on the excitement of scientific discovery, and there is also a strong if labored conflict between the curiosity of the poor immigrants and the willful anti-intellectualism of the power holders. Her storytelling restraint evokes the era, but whether readers surrender to her sedate rhythms will depend on their patience. The group voice is an interesting experiment but robs the narrative of its urgency. Still, fans of her previous works (Servants of the Maps, 2002) are unlikely to be disappointed. Graff, KeirSee all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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
Barrett paints a quiet picture of very human characters with all their charms and flaws thrown together by outside forces, coming together, and pulling apart. Readers of some of her previous books (Ship Fever, The Voyage of the Narwhal, Servants of the Map) will recognize familiar names. One of the delights of reading Barrett is how she weaves characters, and even objects, from one story and one time period to another, creating a world of relationships and history. But not having read any of her other works does not at all detract from the enjoyment of this book. In one slim volume, this novel takes on issues of war, friendship, love, betrayal, time, philosophy, gender, class, and guilt, all written in beautifully clear, lyrical prose. Highly recommended.
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
Patients of the facility, many of them immigrants, most of them poor, arrive from various locations and eventually come together weekly to socialize and share knowledge in a group setting due to the efforts of a rich, weasel of a guy named Miles, who lives at a more expensive boarding house located nearby. Driven by car by his landlady's daughter, he quickly forms a crush on the teenager who longs for a different life outside the small town. The story is narrated by a resident whose identity is never revealed and recounts events as they believe them to be true regarding a situation involving Leo Marburg (who arrives at in July of 1916). As a result of Marburg's actions, performed in loyalty to a resident with whom he forms a friendship, and a series of related and sometimes unfortunate events, the dynamics of the relationships between residents of the facility change greatly. The story is set against a backdrop of WWI, which the U.S. becomes involved in during the time covered in the novel. The book seems a bit slow at the start as the author introduces the primary characters, but picks up speed and intrigue as the situation with Leo Marburg comes to a head. Besides Leo, Miles and Naomi, there are several other notable characters including: a skilled radiologist, Irene; a talented, diminutive doctor, Dr. Petrie; and a ward worker, Eudora. The author weaves a wonderful story about the descendants of notable characters from three of her other books very cleverly. Fans of The Air We Breathe might consider the using the following plan: read The Air We Breathe first and keep a copy of the family tree, read Servants of the Map second (all the main characters are shown on the family tree), read Ship Fever third (which has info on the Kynd family and a few others), read Voyage of the Narwhal fourth (which contains a continuation about the lives of Ned and Denis Kynd after Ship Fever). My favorite is definitely Servants of the Map, and having read it before and after The Air We Breathe, is more enjoyable when read after and with a copy of the family tree to keep track of the characters. Also good: Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.