The Air We Breathe

The Air We Breathe

3.7 13
by Andrea Barrett

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The exquisite, much-anticipated new novel by the author of Ship Fever, winner of the National Book Award.


The exquisite, much-anticipated new novel by the author of Ship Fever, winner of the National Book Award.

Editorial Reviews

Maureen Corrigan
The Air We Breathe, reads like an elegant ghost story, narrated by a chorus of not-quite-innocent spectral bystanders…Barrett's severe attention to the smallest routines gives us a sense of what it would have been like to have hung suspended for months and even years in a regime of institutionalized inertia that was once the only cure for tuberculosis. The Air We Breathe is a muted tale of terror—terror that was relentlessly tamped down under cold air, milk and enforced rest. In the apprehensive silence that prevails throughout Tamarack Lake, a cough that's suddenly returned is as much cause for panic as an anarchist's bomb.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Picking up connected characters from her 1996 National Book Award-winning story collection Ship Fever, the latest from Barrett follows her Pulitzer Prize finalist Servants of the Map. In the fall of 1916, as the U.S. involvement in WWI looms, the Adirondack town of Tamarack Lake houses a public sanitarium and private "cure cottages" for TB patients. Gossip about roommate changes, nurse visits, cliques and romantic connections dominate relations among the sick-mostly poor European immigrants-when they're not on their porches taking their rest cure. Intrigue increases with the arrival of Leo Marburg, an attractive former chemist from Odessa who has spent his years in New York slaving away at a sugar refinery, and of Miles Fairchild, a pompous and wealthy cure cottage resident who decides to start a discussion group, despite his inability to understand many of his fellow patients. As in Joshua Ferris's recent Then We Came to the End, Barrett narrates with a collective "we," the voice of the crowd of convalescents. Details of New York tenements and of the sanitarium's regime are vivid and engrossing. The plot, which hinges on the coming of WWI, has a lock-step logic, but its transparency doesn't take away from the timeliness of its theme: how the tragedy, betrayal and heartbreak of war extend far beyond the battlefield. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In the early 1900s, patients at the Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment for Tuberculosis are of two different sorts. The wealthy can live in some comfort by renting little chalets, while working-class patients must make do in the barracks-like dormitories. Then factory owner Miles Fairchild crosses the line by proposing a weekly discussion group, which he opens with some pompous lectures on paleontology. Soon the less fortunate patients are revealing a depth of knowledge and experience the condescending Fairchild could not have imagined. Meanwhile, emotional entanglements flare everywhere. Miles falls for Naomi, the wayward girl who drives him to the sanatorium; she's interested in a patient named Leo, trained as a chemist in Russia and now given access to the X-ray equipment by technician Irene. But Leo is forming a bond with Eudora, Naomi's best friend and herself an aspiring technician. It all leads to a very real explosion, with sabotage suspected as America's entry into World War I looms. Miles leads the charge in accusing Leo, and it's heartrending to see how his old friends turn on him. Though not as powerfully written as Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, this is a deft and quietly wrenching tale of human misunderstanding. For most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/07.]
—Barbara Hoffert

Kirkus Reviews
Shadows revealed by X-ray machines and generated by the gathering momentum of World War I darken and enrich the texture of Barrett's demanding, rewarding sixth novel (Servants of the Map, 2002, etc.). Featuring descendants of characters in her earlier books, it's a crowded group portrait filled by the patients, staff and outside "help" brought together in 1916 at a tuberculosis sanatorium (Tamarack State) in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Narrated by the patients (identified only as "we"), it describes the facility and its operation, gradually narrowing focus to concentrate on recent Polish-German immigrant Leo Marburg (whose peregrinations have prevented him from completing an education in chemistry), his fellow patient and eventual antagonist, wealthy cement-plant owner Miles Fairchild (who resides in a comfortable "cure house" outside Tamarack State), as well as the three women who touch, and alter, both men's lives. This trio includes X-ray technician Irene (a victim of the new science she has mastered), who welcomes Leo as a promising kindred spirit; teenaged Naomi (who becomes Miles's driver, but not the sweetheart he yearns for); and "ward maid" Eudora, who arouses in Leo the passions Naomi (who loves him, and not Miles) cannot arouse. Mounting evidence that the United States will enter the European war (very skillfully layered in) heightens tensions, as do the presence of a tin box entrusted to Leo's care, a fire of suspicious origins and Miles's patriotic fervor, which turns weekly discussion groups he has organized into a proving ground for one's loyalty. This richly detailed, highly intelligent novel is too slowly paced to elicit reader interest early on, but it buildsand persuades most impressively, creating a compelling picture of how "together, without noticing exactly what was happening, we'd contributed to destroying our own world."A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of all contemporary American writers.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Andrea Barrett has received a National Book Award and a MacArthur grant and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A fellow at the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers, Barrett lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, and teaches at Williams College.

Brief Biography

Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
November 16, 1954
Place of Birth:
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
B.A., Union College

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The Air We Breathe 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another great work by Andrea Barrett.  I have read all her works and enjoy them imensely.  
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Couldnt get through the sample
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whiteginger More than 1 year ago
The patients of the fictional state-funded Tamarack Sanatorium for TB victims narrate this book as one voice, the voice of "we," a collective first-person omniscient narrator. This tender, poignant voice recalls the years of WWI. Although none of the patients were firm enough to do active service in the war, their story is a touching portrait of how war affects everyone. Leo, the beautifully drawn central character, is only twenty-six when he is placed in the sanatorium. A Russian immigrant with a chemistry background, he has no family and has been unable to find work worthy of his talents and education in America. In the sanatorium the other patients and staff seem drawn to him, but he is shy and quiet. Why is he so secretive? I loved the characters and the historical context woven through the plot. I also enjoyed thoughtful antithesis of ideas--open discussion vs suspicious rumors, scientific progress for good (X-rays) vs scientific progress for evil (poisonous gas warfare), community identity vs individuality. This novel is great reading and would be wonderful for a book club.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book. Learning about life in those times, at TB institutions, and the character development was extraordinary. It was very emotional at times and I could actually feel what the people were feeling as everything was described so eloquently. This book really held my interest and I've been so bored lately with most 'best sellers'.