That a chemist figures prominently in Andrea Barrett’s new novel, The Air We Breathe, will come as no surprise to those familiar with her fiction. Over the past decade, Barrett has produced a novel and two story collections that dramatize an abiding fascination with scientists in late-nineteenth- and early-twentiethcentury milieus. Her characters, both historical and imaginary, have included botanists, geneticists, zoologists, biologists, and ornithologists. A genealogical chart is appended to Barrett’s latest offering, illustrating the latticework of relationships that unites major and peripheral characters in all four books. In this way, The Air We Breathe completes the author’s ingenious tetralogy.
The chemist in question is Leo Marburg, a Russian émigré admitted in 1916 to Tamarack State, a public sanatorium isolated in the northern Adirondacks. (Leo is the grandfather of Rose and Bianca Marburg, who appear in several of Barrett’s stories.) Here, “time clotted like blood in a bowl”; for hours on end, Leo and his fellow tubercular patients—all impoverished immigrants— are confined to “cure-chairs,” inhaling into their diseased lungs the chill, purportedly salubrious mountain air. The only respite from tedium is a weekly lecture, an idea proposed by Miles Fairchild, a wealthy patient at a neighboring private cure cottage. Miles delivers the first few lectures, disquisitions on paleontology and geology, but in time he yields the floor to other patients who are eager to share their pet interests with the assembled group. The intermingling of the sexes occasioned by these “Wednesday sessions,” as they come to be called, facilitates romantic yearnings: Leo fi nds himself enamored with Eudora, a ward maid, while Miles develops an obsession with Naomi, Eudora’s best friend.
The Air We Breathe is narrated in the collective fi rst-person voice, comprising the Tamarack patients who bear witness to the complications resulting from the amorous entanglements (“Have we said how bored we often were? How hungry for something to happen? Perhaps we didn’t say enough, earlier, about the feuds and quarrels that used to be common here. The way we found scapegoats, broke into factions and groups, turned like jackals on those who tried to hold themselves apart or guard their privacy”). The ominous interjections this shadowy Greek chorus is given to making nevertheless fail to invest the languorously unfolding plot with a sense of urgency. Barrett’s desire to draw taut the genealogical linkages between her characters often generates ponderous clarifi cations—“Nearly a decade younger than Ephraim, Felix was the younger brother of Rose’s brother-in-law”—that further belabor the narrative.
Midway through the book, as Eudora gazes at an X-ray of Leo’s chest that reveals his “ribs, vertebrae, collarbones,” she fi nds herself trembling and realizes how much she cares for him. One wishes, ultimately, that there were more of such affecting moments. It is a standout scene and a poignant reminder of how deeply Barrett can penetrate a character’s core.