In Andrea Barrett’s fiction, science is always personal, and everything personal revolves around science: She weaves pursuits from Arctic exploration to Linnaean taxonomy into her narratives as mirrors to the discoveries her characters make about one another. As with any recurring device, this preoccupation can occasionally become a crutch; Barrett’s books are so entirely populated by scientists and scientists manqué that you wonder where all the bookkeepers and grocers and French professors are hiding. (Perhaps appropriately, Barrett’s characters tend to have extratextual relationships with one another, so that her books taken as a whole describe one giant, multigenerational
science-obsessed family.) Moreover, the science sometimes feels like an elite gloss to plotlines that dance on the edge of the suburban-book-club category: love, families, restless men and women trying to escape the provinces—though in Barrett, they do so by setting off to the Himalayas or typhoid quarantine camps instead of New York City or Tuscany. All that said, Barrett’s books are a tremendous pleasure. Her novels are painstakingly researched, her plots are, for the most part, watertight, and her writing is flawless and lovely. Though her new novel, The Air We Breathe, isn’t as engrossing as her earlier, more unified books (most recently, Servants of the Map and the National Book Awardnwinning Ship Fever), its assured precision still carries the reader. The novel takes place just before World War I in Tamarack State Sanatorium, an upstate New York tuberculosis hospice. The inhabitants of Tamarack, who narrate the novel as a collective “we,” are mostly Eastern European immigrants—laborers from New York City who, like the central character, Leo Marburg, have been packed off to Tamarack by overstrained city social services. As in any forced community, the patients pass their time gossiping, pairing off, and bickering. But Miles Fairchild, a wealthy TB patient (and baron of industry) in a private rest home, has larger ambitions for the sanatorium. He initiates a series of discussion meetings, speculating to a friend that “if [the Tamarack patients] return to society better fitted to be happy and productive workers, the sort we would be pleased to hire, I will feel most satisfied.” Much to his surprise, the group quickly develops into something else entirely—a mini version of a communist utopia, based on the shtetls and workers’ circles the patients remember from home. In the old country, one of these sickly factory workers was a musician, some studied literature, and others, of course, were scientists; the patients teach one another about new artists like Mussorgsky and Chekhov and debate innovations in X-ray technology. In the process, they connect to their authentic, pre-American selves—Leo says, when pondering his own lecture, that “he wanted to draw not on his scattered, broken American self but on who he really was.” This strain in the novel seems the most powerful, especially given that the novel’s action is concurrent with the Russian revolution, and it would have been exciting if The Air We Breathe had developed along the lines of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, with the patients running the asylum in a beautiful, if necessarily transient, communitarian paradise. Instead, the last third of the novel becomes disappointingly plot-driven, its focus moving onto the machinations of Naomi, Fairchild’s impetuous driver, her friend Eudora, a scientist-in-training, and Fairchild himself, who starts monitoring suspicious elements in the Tamarack community for a pro-war group, and shifting away from the Tamarack patients, at least until the very end. It’s as if Barrett is giving up on the most fascinating scientific experiment of all—what happens when you dump a bunch of people in a box and shut the lid—for more predictable investigations. The novel is complex and smart enough that it’s not ruined, but hopefully future Barrett novels will practice the rigorous science that her characters preach.