Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Air We Breathe

One of my favorite writers of historical fiction is Andrea Barrett. She excels when writing about scientists’ passion for their work, my favorite books being the collection Ship Fever and the novel Voyage of the Narwal.

Her most recent novel The Air We Breathe is set at the tuberculosis sanitariums which were popular in the Adirondacks of northern New York State during the early decades of the 20th century. The novel is concerned with two such sites: a private home for rich people to rest and absorb as much of the fresh air as possible; and a nearby dormitory-type sanitarium where poor people are sent by the state for the same purpose.

The cast of characters is a varied one:
• Naomi, the daughter of the caretaker at the rich house, who works endlessly under her mother’s obsessive thumb;
• Eureka, her best friend in the village who works at the sanitarium and who spends every available minute in its basement, learning to use the x-ray equipment;
• Irene, the x-ray technician who serves as Eureka’s mentor;
• Miles, a rich factory owner staying at the house who has fallen passionately-in-love with Naomi, even though she considers him almost old enough to be her father;
• Leo, a Jewish immigrant staying at the sanitarium whose passion is chemistry, which he studied before coming to America, and who becomes friendly with Eureka and Irene;
• Dr. Petrie, one of the doctors at the sanitarium;

In order to enlighten the poor residents of the sanitarium, most of whom are immigrants from central Europe, Miles initiates a weekly session in which interested patients can gather to listen to educational lectures. He runs the first two meetings, but soon other patients begin telling their own stories. This gives the novel a bit of a Canterbury Tales format, although the author is much more concerned with how the patients react to each other’s stories than the stories themselves.

The novel changes from slower-paced character-oriented to faster-paced plot-oriented when World War I begins and people are struck by a combination of patriotic fervor and fear of Eastern Europeans (reminiscent of the Japanese internment in WW2 and the current anti-Muslim fear). To make matters worse, there is a mysterious fire at the dormitory and Miles, the most fervent pro-war patriot, places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Leo, the Jewish immigrant. Meanwhile the entangled relationships between Miles who loves Naomi who loves Leo who loves Eudora begins affecting events at both the sanitarium and house.

My only complaint with the novel, and it is a minor complaint, is the strange narrative viewpoint Barrett uses for the novel. Events are told as if from the collective point of view of the patients at the dormitory. Initially this is a bit distracting, but once I got used to it I found it not much different than using the omniscient third person, and just as effective. I’m still not sure why Barrett chose such an unusual viewpoint, or why she felt it was necessary.

But that complaint aside, The Air We Breathe was probably her best novel, and equally as good as her collection Ship Fever. Any fans of historical fiction should enjoy it.


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