The Air We Breathe
by Andrea Barrett

Norton, 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-0-61086.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 09/26/2008

Fiction: Historical

Andrea Barrett is a new writer for me, but not for thousands of others. Her book, Ship Fever, won the National Book Award. She has a wonderful ability to combine fascinating scientific facts with an intriguing story line.

The Air We Breathe takes place in 1916, just before our entry into WWI. The protagonist, Leo Marburg, is a guest of the state of New York in a tuberculosis sanatorium on the hill overlooking the village of Tamarack Lake. We are reminded that the cure for TB at that time was rest and fresh, brisk air and that X-rays were new medical miracles.

The area is one where the wealthy guest lived in private "cure cottages," and the poor, many of the recent immigrants, in the sanatorium. In an effort to enlighten the ignorant poor, one of the wealthy guests begins a weekly discussion group which ultimately draws not only patients, but staff and doctors as well.

As the country moves inexorably towards war, there is a general paranoia about foreign spies and trade unions. Those who are ill, staff, especially two young and bright women, and doctors weave entangled relationships built on fact and fantasy. Within the tale, we learn of the development of radiology, including dangers unknown at the inception of the science.

Barrett is a fine writer who creates sympathetic characters and draws us into their lives and their times. I will look for more of her skillful and enticing work

Andrea Barrett has received the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulizer Prize. She teaches at Williams College and lives in North Adams, MA. You can learn more about Dr. Barrett on Wikipedia.

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