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The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett

The Air We Breathe (edition 2007)

by Andrea Barrett

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4333624,328 (3.63)55
Title:The Air We Breathe
Authors:Andrea Barrett
Info:W.W. Norton (2007), Edition: Advance Reader Copy, Paperback
Collections:Your library

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The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett

  1. 00
    The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald (betsytacy)
    betsytacy: If the tuberculosis treatment aspects of The Air We Breathe are of particular interest, I'd recommend Betty MacDonald's humorous memoir of her time in a tuberculosis sanitarium in the late 1930s.
  2. 00
    The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (shearon)

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The Air We Breathe is narrated by an unnamed patient residing in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks as the first World War approaches. The patients, all of whom suffer from tuberculosis, have been sent here by the state; most of them are poor immigrants, many of them Jews, Russians, and Germans. Because of the healthful environment, many private homes in the area also cater to wealthier TB victims. One such home is run by Mrs. Martin, with the help of her teenage daughter, Naomi. When one of her tenants decides to start a Wednesday learning circle at the state institution, the story is set into motion.

Although Miles's lectures on fossils initially bore the men, the Wednesday group flourishes when others share their expertise and life stories. There's Ephraim, a communal apple farmer; Irene, the Russian radiologist; and Leo, a former chemist who attracts the romantic interest of both Naomi and her friend Eudora, an aide at the sanitorium who longs to follow in Irene's footsteps. Meanwhile, Miles has fallen in love with Naomi, who has been serving as his driver. As one would expect, conflicts develop from misplaced romantic notions, and even the serene town of Tamarack Lake is not immune to the effects of the rising war in Europe and the political fallout at home.

Barrett is often praised for bringing science and technology into her novels, and there are lengthy sections here on chemistry, radiology, fossils, etc. I have to admit that, while I was engaged with the characters, I found the science rather awkwardly integrated and intrusive: it felt like the author was writing a novel to expound on scientific topics rather than writng a novel in which science plays a role. ( )
2 vote Cariola | Nov 6, 2014 |
I've been a fan of Andrea Barrett's work for a while: I enjoy how she brings her knowledge of science and natural history into her novels, and this is no exception. The Air We Breathe is set in a small Adirondack town, centered around a state sanatorium and a private rest home for tuberculosis patients, and Barrett lingers over treatment practices, early radiography, and chemistry. The story is well told, and I quite liked how Barrett handled the narration, which is rather unconventional (no spoilers here - go read the book).

As I was reading I kept thinking that I recognized some of the names, or characters - and sure enough, in a note at the end, Barrett clarifies that people related to characters from her earlier stories did make appearances. Another element of Barrett's work(s) that I really like (and which may well prompt me to go back and some of her earlier stories again. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Aug 17, 2014 |
I am familiar with the villages of the Adirondacks where this novel is set. In Tupper Lake, there is an institution now called Sunmount Developmental Center that was the site in the late 19th & early 20th centuries of a tuberculosis sanitarium. I have visited Sunmount many times it my professional capacity (it now houses persons with developmental disabilities). Perhaps this is the state institution that Barrett uses as the Tamarack sanitarium. Nearby Saranac Lake is well-known for its history of cottages and homes that housed persons recouperating from TB.

This well-conceived and well-written novel weaves together many interesting themes. Tamarack is populated by persons of lower social classes; many are immigrants. In the private sanitaria nearby persons of means reside. They come together when a rich resident decides to sponsor lectures at the Tamarack institution. This allows the residents there to reveal their interesting histories and life stories. The narration in the novel intriguingly shifts between the second person plural to the third person. The "we" in the narration is never identified, but it serves to identify the community that forms the institution.

As in other works by Barrett there's an element of science, particularly about the treatment before antibiotics and about the early radiological technology that was at the institution. There is adept use of metaphor relating to this.

The book takes place at the onset of World War I and into America's entry into the war. The suspicion and hostility towards immigrants that was hugely manifest in America during the war gets deep attention here.

This is a thoughtful,multi-layered and intelligent book that is well worth attention. ( )
  stevesmits | Apr 18, 2013 |
Other reviewers have had difficulty understanding the narrator "we". This antiphonal narration is not done by a single person, & is nicely explained in the final chapter. Please also consider the author's choice of epigraphs, particularly the 1915 quote from that time period. Then see how Barrett turns those pompous words on their head. The poor, recent immigrants who reside at the sanatorium are anything but "mentally and morally poor", tho the same cannot be said for Miles Fairchild, a rich business man residing in a private care home for his TB cure.
The era of the 1910's is brought to life through the characters. And while we don't hear the fate of those left behind in the fire-damaged sanatorium, a study of the Genealogical chart in the end pages gives a hint to the future lives of the characters.
I look forward to further books by this auther who gives more than fluff. ( )
  juniperSun | Jul 21, 2012 |
Tuberculosis patients are transported to an Adirondack sanatorium for their rest-cure in the days just before World War I, and in Andrea Barrett’s excellent The Air We Breathe provides a microcosm for the world on the eve of losing its innocence in the “War to End All Wars.” There are many novels which show an author’s deep understanding of human nature, and "The Air We Breathe" belongs in the ranks of the very finest.

Leo Marburg, a young Russian immigrant without family or cultural ties, contracts the dread consumption while living and working in Brooklyn in the spring of 1917. His arrival at Tamarack State, the institution for tuberculosis patients, precipitates at length a series of misunderstandings, and attracts the suspicion of the self-appointed authorities. His fellow inmates also succumb to unfounded suspicion, and turn on him. At novel’s end, they realize how unfair they were to their former friend, and how unjust.

Ms. Barrett does a marvelous job of bringing in the remarkable historical events at that epochal moment. The inmates, suffering from boredom and a sense of abandonment, begin, grudgingly at first, to gather once a week to hear a talk by one of their own. Late in the book, after all the reproach and recrimination have played their havoc on the principals, particularly Leo, the group reflects on a time of lost innocence (a grand job of the author to catch the tenor and momentousness of the time):

“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 war simply by observing our own actions and desires. We lived as if nothing was important.”

In awe of events swirling beyond their walls, the inmates make the mistake of missing the feelings and personal strife right within their midst. They have witnessed thwarted love, betrayal, xenophobia, wartime jingoism, and the disillusionment of talented immigrants. The clever author accomplishes two tricks at once here: she uses the folly and selfishness of the patients to illuminate the faults of the outside world (there is a fire that generates poison gas and fatally injures three), and also shows in stark relief the truth that the less we care for our fellow beings, the less we are worth. She offers here a lesson for the world at large, and also for much smaller communities. This is superbly thought-provoking, plainly told, and deceptively straightforward. Find the depth through the archetypes. Recommended, big-time.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2012/06/air-we-breathe-by-andrea-barrett.html ( )
1 vote LukeS | Jun 6, 2012 |
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Andrea Barrettprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nölle, KarenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we drive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey; the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment. Here you will find but few crimes; these have acquired as yet no root among us. ---J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur: Letters from an American Farmer; Letter III, "What Is an American?" (1782)
In the first place, tuberculosis is largely a disease of the poor--of those on or below the poverty line. We must further realize that there are two sorts of poor people--not only those financially handicapped and so unable to control their environment, but those who are mentally and morally poor, an lack intelligence, will power, and self-control. The poor, from whatever cause, form a class whose environment is difficult to alter. And we must further realize that these patients are surrounded in their homes by people of their own kind--their families and friends--who are also poor. It is this fact which makes the task so difficult, and makes the prevention and cure of a preventable and curable disease a matter of utmost complexity. --Ellen N. LaMotte, The Tuberculosis Nurse: Her Functions and Qualifications (1915)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393061086, Hardcover)

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

In fall 1916, Americans debate whether to enter the European war. "Preparedness parades" march and headlines report German spies. But in an isolated community in the Adirondacks, the danger is barely felt. At Tamarack Lake the focus is on the sick. Wealthy tubercular patients live in private cure cottages; charity patients, mainly immigrants, fill the large public sanatorium. For all, time stands still. Prisoners of routine and yearning for absent families, the patients, including the newly arrived Leo Marburg, take solace in gossip, rumor, and—sometimes—secret attachments.

An enterprising patient initiates a weekly discussion group. When his well-meaning efforts lead instead to a tragic accident and a terrible betrayal, the war comes home, bringing with it a surge of anti-immigrant prejudice and vigilante sentiment. The conjunction of thwarted desires and political tension binds the patients so deeply that, finally, they speak about what's happened in a single voice.

The Air We Breathe, though entirely self-contained, extends the web of connected characters begun with Ship Fever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:11 -0400)

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Detached from the rest of the country on the eve of World War I, the tuberculosis-stricken residents of an Adirondack lakeside sanatorium are housed in accordance with their economic status and languish in their isolation before an enterprising patient initiates a weekly discussion group.… (more)

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393061086, 0393333078

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