Andrea Barrett

"The Air We Breathe"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 4, 2007)

In a recent interview on NPR, author Andrea Barrett, winner of the National Book Award, explained why she decided to craft her latest story using tuberculosis as a backdrop. “Infectious disease exists at [the] intersection between real science, medicine, public health, social policy and human conflict,” she said.

In fact all of these factors play out beautifully in Barrett’s latest novel, The Air We Breathe, set in the year 1916. In particular, the human conflict is channeled through her use of the collective “we”--residents of Tamarack State sanatorium in upstate New York, who breathe and act like one. The residents are uniformly poor, recent immigrants (mostly of European ancestry), and sent to the state facility to recuperate from the infectious disease.

The book opens to the arrival of a new admission to the facility--Leo Marburg, a Russian citizen, with strains of Baltic German and Polish ancestry. Leo was an up and coming chemist in his old life but resorts to working the most basic of jobs at a sugar refinery in New York, until a co-worker spots him coughing up blood.

Leo’s love for science is fueled by the sanatorium’s resident X-Ray technician Irene, who gives him a couple of chemistry texts and reignites his love for the subject. Then there is Eudora an all-purpose helper in the wards who also tinkers with X-Ray tubes in her limited spare time.

Further up the hill in Tamarack Lake are the wealthier care cottages--occupied by rich patients who are attended upon with better food and services. Among the rich is Miles Fairchild, a one-time owner of a cement factory and amateur paleontologist, who now finds time weighing heavily on his hands. Miles, who once wrote to a friend that “Men, not materials, are the finished product of a factory,” takes it upon himself to educate the lower class immigrants at the public sanatorium and starts a lecture series to take place every Wednesday.

The residents at first, don’t know what to make of Miles or the lectures: “We’d dug tunnels for subways, poured concrete for buildings, hauled bricks and grain or cut out shirt collars by the thousands, salted down millions of fish. What we couldn’t understand was what this person, speaking with so much enthusiasm and so little understanding, wanted from us,” they say, but settle in for the lectures because if nothing else, they give the patients something to do.

Miles, for his part, is besotted with Naomi Martin, the cottage housekeeper’s daughter, who can’t wait to leave town and make a life for herself outside its confines. As instead, Naomi drives Miles to the Wednesday lectures at the sanatorium, an interesting and complex set of relationships develops between all key players. Eudora and Leo develop a preliminary, shaky relationship and Naomi, after finding Miles too easy a prize, falls in love with Leo. Barrett beautifully shows how the restricted lives of the sanatorium’s residents along with the constricting social mores of the times compound an already precarious situation. The narcissism evidenced by Naomi and Miles plays out to devastating conclusion and affects the lives of many.

In her NPR interview, Barrett said, “There’s a tendency of people to try and make a group out of those who have the disease (tuberculosis). It makes people who don’t have the disease feel safer.” Indeed the groups in The Air We Breathe are many, all effectively portrayed by Barrett: the rich and the poor; the ones with the disease, the ones without; the ones inside the collective voice and the singular person, Leo Marburg, outside.

It is difficult not to make comparisons between the setting for Barrett’s story and the hyper-vigilant, orange threat leveled, ever suspicious society of contemporary America. Barrett’s latest proves that more easily diagnosed germs might be easier to treat than narcissism, xenophobia and fear--toxins that are more insidious, but that poison the air we breathe, just the same.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Air We Breathe at NPR

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About the Author:

Andrea BarrettAndrea Barrett was born in 1954 in Boston, Massachusetts. Barrett received her B.A. in biology from Union College in Schenectady, New York and briefly attended a Ph.D. program in zoology. She began writing fiction seriously in her thirties, but was relatively unknown until the publication of Ship Fever, which won the National Book Award.

Barrett is the recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a 2003 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Servants of the Map was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

She and her husband, biologist Barry Goldstein, live in Rochester, New York. They both participate in a musical group, with Barrett playing African percussion instruments. She currently teaches at Williams College. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014