The Air We Breathe

By Andrea Barrett

297 pp. W.W. Norton. $25

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Reviewed by Karen Heller


Inquirer Staff Writer

nolead ends Andrea Barrett is a lyrical novelist of the American past, giving life to pioneers in science with such resonance that even readers who wrestled mightily with chemistry come away entranced by her evocative accounts of discovery.

The winner of a MacArthur fellowship and the National Book Award (for the 1996 short-story collection Ship Fever) and a Pulitzer finalist (for the 2003 Servants of the Map), Barrett is taken with an earlier time, when the country was much smaller and exploration - pushing boundaries in science, geography and knowledge - mattered far more than it does today. Science moved the country forward and outward, and into the greater world.

Her latest marvel, The Air We Breathe, begins in 1916 at Tamarack State, a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients situated in the Adirondacks. Instead of the rarefied aristocrats of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Tamarack's patients are from modest backgrounds - many are recent immigrants - no better off than the nursing staff.

It's the wealthy, like the patronizing and pedantic merchant Miles Fairchild, the owner of a Doylestown cement plant, who dwell off-site as boarders at private homes, commandeering the local homes. Fairchild, an amateur paleontologist and would-be Henry Higgins, sees it as his mission to improve the minds of the poor residents and staff, organizing symposiums that unleash not only intellectual inquiry but emotional longing.

Fairchild tells the patients: "Being sick is lonely, in addition to everything else. Boring, too. All of us need conversation, and instruction - which is what I hope to offer. It's my idea that we'll teach each other, thereby widening our horizons."

Like the sick, scientists often work in isolation, putting in long hours, even years, without results. In this age, and in Barrett's writings, scientists are holding the lamp to lead Americans out of the darkness, and patients away from death. (Curiously, this is the second novel in a year to refer to the diminutive electrical pioneer Charles Steinmetz, a major figure in Starling Lawrence's The Lightning Keeper, an equally romantic, though less taut and accomplished, novel.)

Barrett's heroes, and lab-crossed lovers, are patient Leo Marburg - the child of a Baltic German and Pole, his cultural identity as blurred as the evanescent borders of Eastern Europe - and nurse Eudora MacEachern, both gifted at science and entranced by the sanitorium's X-ray laboratory.

Fairchild, a bachelor, boards at the home of a Mrs. Martin, where Eudora's friend, Naomi, serves as his driver. Naomi's mother has other ideas, hoping her daughter will become his bride. Naomi, though, is obsessed with Marburg.

All of the town's residents are cloistered in the mountains as President Wilson commits America to World War I, and yet it proves impossible for them to remain unsinged. It is a time when citizens are asked to swear "absolute and unqualified loyalty to our country," and people of German ancestry, or countries close enough, see their fealties questioned.

A staff doctor returns to the sanitorium to report the horrors he witnessed abroad, where the air is clouded with poison:

Gas warfare, he said indignantly, was the exact reverse of everything he'd spent his life learning to fight. He knew more acutely than most what those victims were suffering and he knew that we, so alert to the difficulties of living with imperfect lungs, might also sense what those men had been through.

Fairchild becomes involved in the American Protective League, dedicated to seeking out "spies and saboteurs of all kinds." A friend visits Leo Marburg, who is loyal and too trusting, leaving a box containing explosive secrets, Socialist papers, an anarchist pamphlet, copper wire, an unglazed ceramic tile.

Given Naomi's distress at Leo's rejection, and Miles' need to justify his importance (as well the sting of Naomi's rebuffing him), the hidden possession becomes a potential tinderbox that can destroy Leo's life.

As in Ann Patchett's Run, some of The Air We Breathe's characters are, at times, too heroic. Barrett possesses a modernist's view of valiant women in science; two in this novel seem too progressive for the times. Then again, her gift for story, for mining America's past, and her ability to construct a specific moment in the quest for knowledge are remarkable.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.