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[617] The Air We Breathe – Andrea Barrett

air

” How innocent we seem to ourselves, now, when we look back at our first Wednesday afternoons! Gathering to learn about fossils, poison gas, the communal settlement at Ovid, about Stravinsky and Chekhov, trade unions and moving pictures and the relative nature of time, when we could have learned what we needed about the world and the war simply by observing our own actions and desires. ” (Ch.24, p.295)

Set in a 100-patient sanatorium in the mountains of upstate New york, The Air We Breathe provides an insight into tuberculosis and its treatment against the shadow of the looming World War I. While a quiet sense of paranoia pervades the pages, the book, which according to the blurb, hinges on a pivotal accident, takes eons to gather momentum.

He told both Dr. Richards and his own agents that Leo’s background makes him particularly suspicious. Russian, Jewish, German—there’s not a part of him Miles trusts. (Ch.21, p.256)

The book opens with a beautiful setting and a promising premise: at fictionalized Tamarack Lake in the Adirondack tuberculosis patients convalesce, in varying degrees of privacy and comfort, in hopes that the crisp highland air will heal their infected lungs. Drama ensues, however, when one privileged patient, a cement plant owner named Miles Fairchild, takes it upon himself to begin a weekly self-improvement lecture series that liberates the spirits of inmates at a state sanatorium. This arrangement also sets in motion (somewhat cliché) a fateful love quadrangle that involves the 37-year-old Miles, Naomi, the 18-year-old daughter of his landlady at the private cure cottage, Leo Marburg, an immigrant from Russia with whom Naomi becomes infatuated, but who has eyes only for her close friend, Eudora MacEachern, a ward maid at the sanatorium.

I’m not sure what Barrett wants to achieve in The Air We Breathe, which seems to lack focus. There’s a lot going on but nothing propels the story—it’s very stagnant. The book weaves strands of World War I gas attacks mirroring tuberculosis sufferers’ plights, advent and modification of X-ray equipment, annd xenophobia ostracizing people as a disease might. Miles soon becomes a local leader of American Protective League and begins pointing fingers at possible subversives. He also has a private agenda to revenge the unrequited love.

The writing is graceful in The Air We Breathe but the story unfocused. Barrett seems less interested in her story and characters than in her novel’s metaphors and the science that generates them. At every turn she feeds us historical and scientific information (which is nonetheless interesting), her characters contribute yet more tangential information through their words and thoughts. But, unfortunately, the result is a story that devolves into a pat ending—that tragic accident after 200 pages is no more than cliché, and the reader is left with some vague world view as snug and impermeable as the physical world of the tuberculosis patients.

296 pp. W. W. Norton. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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2 Responses

  1. I read this quite a few years ago and remember being impressed with the writing, loving the setting, and feeling like something was ultimately lacking. Her earlier novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, had been one of my favorites a few years before reading this one.

    • I love Andrea Barrett’s writing but the story is very stagnant. I had no idea where the book was heading although there was a sense of paranoia throughout. The so-called tragic denouement isn’t even satisfying.

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