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The Air We Breathe: A Novel Hardcover – October 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

The Air We Breathe brings back descendants of some of the characters introduced in Andrea Barrett’s National Book Awardâ€"winning Ship Fever (1996). Critics praise Barrett’s detailed exploration of the sanatorium’s claustrophobic quarters, patients’ ceaseless boredom, and fearâ€"all undercut by brewing nativism and public fear of tuberculosis. The characters represent different elements of society, and the sanatorium a microcosm for wartime allegiances and betrayals. A Greek chorus comprised of the poor, sick souls alienated some critics; a few others thought the major event anticlimactic and the formal discussions too pedantic. Though The Air We Breathe strikes a sharp allegorical note with civil liberty issues today, it is not Barrett’s strongest work.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (October 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393061086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393061086
  • ASIN: 0393061086
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,386,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Andrea Barrett was born in Boston, MA in 1954 and grew up on Cape Cod. She studied biology at Union College, in Schenectady, NY and started writing fiction in her twenties, after several brief stints in graduate school. She lived in Rochester, NY for many years and now lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, photographer Barry Goldstein. She's the author of six novels, most recently THE AIR WE BREATHE, and three collections of stories: SHIP FEVER, which received the 1996 National Book Award, SERVANTS OF THE MAP, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, ARCHANGEL. Visit her official website at

Customer Reviews

It is also beautifully written by a masterful writer.
Jon M. Riley
Secondly, Miles falls in love with a young caretaker who not only does not return his feelings but who loves Leo.
Mary Whipple
The story, unfortunately, becomes tedious and confusing at times.
Judith Paley

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
As precise and perfectly tempered as a scientific experiment, Barrett sets her subtle tour de force in Tamarack Lake in the Adirondacks circa 1916. Dedicated to the cure of tubercular patients, Tamarack State offers a rigid schedule of enforced rest and exposure to the pure mountain air in an effort to clear the diseased lungs of the fortunate few assigned a limited number of beds. While cities are teeming with unrest, a growing immigrant population and their penchant for socialist doctrine, overcrowding, poverty and the demand for unionization of factories, World War I draws ever closer, Germany as yet uncommitted to war with the United States. But the signs grow ominous as the restive days pass for the ill, held captive to their cure, the rules strictly enforced: "no talking... no smoking, no laughing, no singing, no reading, no writing."

Some relief comes from a wealthy patient catered to in Mrs. Martin's cabin, Miles Fairchild, at thirty-seven older than most; Miles establishes a weekly salon to discuss his interest in paleontology. Assuming the acquiescence of the other attendees, Miles' pedantic lectures fail to ignite anyone's imagination save his own. However, the salon allows Martin's daughter, Naomi, an opportunity to earn money driving Miles to and from the event. Fixated on a young woman whose only desire is to escape from this stifling environment, Miles fails to appreciate Naomi's true nature, arrogantly believing she will be grateful for his attentions. She is not, reserving her affections for Leo Marburg, a trained chemist in Russia now reduced to whatever employment he can find in America.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on October 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In 1996, Andrea Barrett's National Book Award-winning story collection SHIP FEVER was published to great critical acclaim. Apparently, book reviewers and readers were not the only ones who found much to treasure in this collection of stories that explore history, science and nature. Barrett herself has returned again and again to the characters and themes she introduced in that collection. From the brilliant novel VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL to her most recent collection, 2002's SERVANTS OF THE MAP, Barrett has created what amounts to a whole extended family of characters whose passions, desires and ambitions surface and resurface in her fiction.

Now, with her new book THE AIR WE BREATHE, Barrett offers readers another interconnected historical novel (this one is set in 1916) that feels simultaneously historically grounded and accurate in its facts and absolutely contemporary and relevant in its themes. It's set in Tamarack State, a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondack region of northern New York State. A public institution for indigent patients, the hospital (unlike the genteel convalescent homes for wealthy invalids) houses mostly immigrants, recent transplants to the United States from places like Russia, eastern Europe and Germany. Many of these patients, like newly-arrived Leo Marburg, were professionals or highly skilled workers in the old country. Here, though, they are treated as common laborers --- or, eventually, as worse.

Into this milieu comes Miles Fairchild, an industrialist and amateur paleontologist. He's staying down the road at one of the convalescent homes, but he's eager to start a Wednesday afternoon conversation group at Tamarack State.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By cbristah on January 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Andrea Barrett lovingly explores the poetic relationship between science and the desires of the human heart. Many of her characters find themselves pondering their lives in places separating them from the rest of society - a ship frozen in the Arctic, an expedition in an exotic place - and in this novel the characters are quarantined in a tuberculosis sanitarium in upstate New York on the eve of the First World War. The story revolves around one patient, Leo Marburg, a recent immigrant, who while at first chaffing under the restrictions imposed by the rules of the institution (like the rigidly enforced rule to relax), finds friendship and love through a weekly discussion group. He also finds a purpose when one of the doctors lends him chemistry books to study so that he may help her with the radiographs she uses to chart patients' progress, setting into motion events that ultimately trigger a tragedy.

Barrett paints a quiet picture of very human characters with all their charms and flaws thrown together by outside forces, coming together, and pulling apart. Readers of some of her previous books (Ship Fever, The Voyage of the Narwhal, Servants of the Map) will recognize familiar names. One of the delights of reading Barrett is how she weaves characters, and even objects, from one story and one time period to another, creating a world of relationships and history. But not having read any of her other works does not at all detract from the enjoyment of this book. In one slim volume, this novel takes on issues of war, friendship, love, betrayal, time, philosophy, gender, class, and guilt, all written in beautifully clear, lyrical prose. Highly recommended.
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