20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2002
Andrea Barrett has done it again. This collection of short stories has all the characteristics that placed Ship Fever and Voyage of the Narwhale among the most accomplished fictions of our time. The lucid and lovely prose, the ruthless honesty, the shocking psychological insight, compassion and deep research of the earlier works is here, but Ms Barrett continues to grow as a writer. These new stories are her most assured, most daring and most wonderfully realized yet. I have followed Ms Barrett's fiction from Lucid Stars, her first novel, to Servants of the Map with growing admiration and wonder. She is a major talent and this is a lovely book.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2002
This is a brilliantly written collection of stories that seamlessly meshes fact with fiction, science with love and faith, and the pursuit of exploration and discovery with the satisfaction of the simpler life. There are so many interesting insights into the emotions of her created characters that we wonder if there is any parallel with the lives of real adventurers.
The opening title story of SERVANTS OF THE MAP starts us off well. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India begun in the mid 19th century was a grand exercise of mapping the sub-continent. The map contours of interest were the peaks and valleys of the "still to be named" mountains of northern India. We meet Max Vignes, a draughtsman who when not sketching the details of what would later be the Himalayas, was looking down and passionately observing plants, leaves, and lichen. Max is obsessed with botany and the real mapping done by Barrett is of the contours of Max's heart. We see him torn between his love for his wife Clare and his two daughters and his all consuming scientific enthrallment with plants.
This is just the first story and yet Barrett's technique of interweaving the real and the imagined, and her theme of scientific enquiry juxtaposed against the demands of the human heart, are both already fully developed and flowering. She goes on to explore this some more with "Two Rivers" where academically inclined Samuel seeks to disprove all non-theological explanations for fossils. We are transported to the world of emerging Darwinism and Barrett uses Samuel to investigate the inner difficulty of reconciling oneself to change and adapting to a new world-view. It's an issue that has as much resonance today as it did in Samuel's world of 100 years ago.
Other stories where this inner geography is explored are "Theories of Rain" and "The Forest" and some of the colorful characters are Aunt's Daphne and Jane, Bianca Marburg, and Nora Kynd who appears in the last story "The Cure". Max, Clare and their daughter Elizabeth also make a return. In a fitting summation to the book Clare shows her ambivalence to Max's return. It's a perfect illustration of the truth that with the human heart there will always be undiscovered territory. "I do love him," she says. "Or I did - how can I know what I feel anymore..."
This is my first book by Barrett but I've already begun what I can only hope is an equally enjoyable journey with another one.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I discovered Andrea Barrett when I read Voyage of the Narwhal, an epic story of courage, devotion, and the struggle with the northern latitudes that captured so many imaginations during the 19th century. I enjoyed that book tremendously. I wasn't disappointed in this collection of short stories.
Andrea Barrett has a great ability when it comes to developing characters. From Max Vigne, a hard working member of a mapping expedition in the area of Northern India in the title story, Servant of the Map" to his wife Clara that makes a major appearance in the final story "The Cure", all her characters are real. Almost real enough, it seems, to reach out and touch.
Each story stands on its own. But the way Ms Barrett weaves the stories together if fabulous. The final story, by the way, is connected to her book, Voyage of the Narwhal. Ned Kynd, an inn keeper in the "The Cure" played a major role in the novel.
I think readers appreciate these connections with past reads. It shows that the author respects the intelligence of the reader and isn't afraid to say that perhaps that story wasn't quite finished.
Finally, Barrett is a wonderful story teller. One can read along in any of these stories and almost take for granted what one is reading. Then all of a sudden a major twist in the story, or some new development with the character, or a connection with something you've read before.
Read this book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2002
Sometimes there are different degrees of good. For Servants of the Map, five stars doesn't seem to do it justice. In fact, using any sort of rating system doesn't feel right. This collection of stories is as fresh and clean as the outdoor worlds it so amazingly describes. Often, I found my mind wandering off the page, and rather than stop myself and turn back to the book, I let my thoughts linger on. The book is nostalgic in this way. It reads quietly and naturally. I felt myself living in Andrea Barrett's vivid landscapes, and communicating with her eccentrically human characters. How rarley in a book do you find two characters, both very likeable, dislike each other? Yet, how often do we find this in real life?
In the second story, The Forest, as well as its companion, The Mysteries of Ubiquitin, opposing characters are quietly clashing almost all the time. Imagine two people, polar opposites, totally disgrunteled with each other, sitting comfortably on a patio near a swimming pool.
I can not recommend this book more emphatically. For those of you who are scared of short stories... stop, and read this book. In those blank spaces between the stories, a larger more wonderous world is created than in most novels I've recently read, including those busting over the 1000 page barrier. This one, you'll want to reread simply to give your imagination another Andrea Barret boost!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2002
Spanning 200 years, the stories of Servants of the Map, address issues of personal discovery against a backdrop of the scientific and natural world. Barrett is strongest with her historical settings, where time moves more slowly and there is more solitary introspection. We can better hear the poetic expression of quietly falling snow or the wind in the trees. Yet the strongest statement the book makes, including the contemporary stories, is the almost invisible thread that binds the characters to each other and to history. Diaries, letters, old notebooks, and old memories amplify the connections. Whether it is Max , the 1861 surveyor of the Himalayas or his wife Clara many years later in another story in America, two sisters with two different lives in two different stories, and the same for a separated brother and sister, the search for identity and the yearning for a life that matters and that is authentic is universal. Nor does Barrett stop there. For example, the last story, The Cure, brings back Nora from the haunting title story of her last collection, Ship Fever, and also refers obliquely to characters from her novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal. This new collection is an eloquent companion to those earlier works. After reading the stories, you feel like you have shared in a personal meditation with these characters.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
SERVANTS OF THE MAP is a unique collection of short stories by the redoubtable Andrea Barrett. While most of us felt she needed the space and stretched-canvas-epic-form to weave her magic, in this collection of six shortish stories she proves she is as adept at relating her tales woven equally with Apollonian/scientific and Dionysian/sensual facets in tight, capsular fashion. She still manages to create vistas rather than views and lineages rather than one dimensional lifetimes. Now and then I find it necessary to break out of her luxuriously poetic language and take a laudatory appraisal of this women's depth of scientific information. The research for such diverse stories pays off by giving the reader the pleasure of discovery of cartography, botany, medical diseases etc in a flowing, painless entry to the richly detailed minds of her characters. This is nothing short of a wondrous book, on to be revisited often - one story at a time - like a treasured scrapbook travelogue!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2009
I thought that I would like this book of short stories better than I did. The subject matter, natural history, is one of great interest to me, however I found the stories a bit dry. The 19th century views of science that she portrayed were quite entertaining, and the prose gave me the feel of walking though a Victorian museum filled with curio cabinets containing jars of esoterica with handwritten paper labels.
Many people who gave this book high reviews were entertained by the fact that these stories were populated with characters from some of her novels - perhaps if I had read the novels first, I would have been more engaged in the characters.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map is a wonderful story collection, a collection with tremendous depth and imagination. Barrett's stories are all richly told and engrossing, each giving us their own world. What is remarkable about her stories, and what sets this collection off from most others out today is her focus on the scientific world. This focus adds an additional layer to the stories and makes them somehow richer. The stories involve a 19th century map-maker, a 21st century science professor and early 20th century tuberculosis sufferers. Barrett does not shy away from the scientific nature of her characters and their stories and because of this, these stories have additional layers of meaning. These are terrific stories. Pick them up.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
If you plan to read only one book by Andrea Barrett, let it be this one. Most of the main characters in these stories are related by blood or marriage to those in some of her other works: The Air We Breathe "TAWB" (read it first if you think you might have time for more), Ship Fever, and Voyage of the Narwhal. The first story, Servants of the Map, is about a Civil Junior Sub Assistant in the Himalayan Service during the early 1860s, and is told primarily in the form of letters from Max Vigne, born in 1835, to his wife, with whom he shares his experiences in the Himalayas: surveying, mapping, collecting and writing about the local fauna, and dealing with some pretty colorful fellow HS workers. Some of his descendants show up in TAWB as well as in the last story of this collection, The Cure, about the life of homeopath Nora Kynd, born in 1825 (who appears in Ship Fever and TAWB), another Kynd family member, and Max Vigne's wife and children.
Both The Forest and The Mysteries of Ubiquitin are about the Marburg sisters, born in the mid-1950s, whose father, Leo, is a major character in TAWB. The setting of The Forest is a party, during which the younger, less successful sister prodigy finds herself stuck with an elderly, visiting professor. He suffers a mishap when, on a whim, she takes him on a little adventure. In The Mysteries of Ubiquitin, she appears again, this time as a successful, thirty-year-old biochemist en route to an enzymology meeting who encounters the man who, years earlier during her childhood and his young adulthood, was her first crush. A relationship ensues during which she learns more than she wanted to about certain relatives.
Theories of Rain and Two Rivers are also related. The first concerns a girl, Lavinia, born in 1790, who spends a lot of time thinking about her long lost brother, who she has not seen since she was a child. The siblings become separated when she is spirited away by two "aunts" after disease decimates her family, orphaning the two. She is infatuated by a neighbor, but is courted by another. Two Rivers follows her brother, Caleb, born in 1788, who is taken in by a theology teacher with an interest in paleontology. He becomes a schoolteacher, and meets an intriguing young woman on a solitary paleontology expedition.
Summary: Barretts' phenomenally written short stories will leave you wanting more, which, fortunately, there is. The family tree at the back of TAWB entitled "The Families" is indispensable in keeping track of the characters in this and the other books. These stories deserve at least four stars as a stand-alone book, five stars in combination with The Air We Breathe and Ship Fever.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a special book of six short stories (with one of them approaching novella-hood). The stories all feature people engaged in the pursuit of science in one form or another, including a surveyor and botanist in the Himalayas, a physical-chemist turned theoretical structural-biologist, amateur paleontologists, an entomologist, and a molecular biologist. But science does not dominate the narratives; rather, the stories are tales of the human heart and of finding a place in the world. In the end, the reader does not think of the characters as scientists but rather as humans, people with everyday human needs and concerns. For a non-scientist reader such as myself, to so convincingly convey the humanity of her characters is quite an accomplishment by Andrea Barrett (whose college training was as a biologist).
The first story, which also is the title story, is relatively focused in time: 1863 and 1864, when its central character Max Vigne is a lowly surveyor with lofty dreams participating in the Kashmir Series of the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India, an integral component of "The Great Game". The other stories all encompass broader swaths of time, going back decades or even generations from the year the principal action is set (1979, 1910, 1853, 1986, and 1905). Further extending their arc, and thereby imparting a sense of the sweep of an epic, the stories are linked by the family trees of one or more of their characters. For example, Max Vigne's daughter is one of two central characters in "The Cure", set in 1905 in a village in the Northern Adirondacks that caters to tubercular patients, and two of his great-great-granddaughters is each a central figure in two other stories.
Moreover, the interrelationships among characters extend back to two of Barrett's previous works -- "The Shipping News" (which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1996 and which I also thought to be a special book) and "The Voyage of the Narwahl" (which I look forward to soon reading). Nonetheless, despite the subtle links among them, the six stories can each stand alone as a self-contained story. And marvelously rich and compact tales they are, ones that in the hands of less accomplished authors would end up as three-hundred page novels. SERVANTS OF THE MAP is a treasure.