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
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Biography - Barrett, Andrea (1954-): An article from: Contemporary Authors