Halfway through The Air We Breathe, the new novel by National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett, a character tries to explain the genius of Chekhov to her fellow patients at a tuberculosis sanatorium. "When she tried to summarize for us some of the stories she'd treasured," recalls the faceless narrator of the book, "she grew frustrated and said that with all writers, but especially Chekhov, summary ruined everything: beauty lay in the story itself, the particular arrangement of sentences." Barrett could well be writing about her own work here, for The Air We Breathe is a dazzlingly Chekhovian book that digs deep into its characters' often unexamined emotions and spins a story whose outcome, like those in the best of the great Russian's work, relies on misapprehension and false assumptions.
A highly atmospheric evocation of a time when the world was rapidly changing, it is exquisitely wrought historical fiction.
Besides Chekhov, the novel's obvious literary forebear is Mann's The Magic Mountain, from which Barrett borrows the conceit of setting a story in an alpine TB clinic just before the First World War. This clinic is in the Adirondacks, though, not Switzerland, and its patients are not the fashionably rich, but charity cases poor immigrants, mostly from New York City, sent there at public expense to stem the urban spread of the contagious disease. The largely Eastern European, Russian and Jewish patients live in relative isolation from the surrounding town of Lake Tamarack; the only outsiders are the medical staff that attends to their cures and the housekeeping help that comes in to change their sheets and clean up the blood they routinely cough up.
The delicate balance of this forced seclusion is irrevocably disturbed when a wealthy man, himself recuperating from tuberculosis, though in a private boarding cottage in the village, asks to conduct an educational experiment at the hospital. Miles Fairchild is the manager of a Pennsylvania cement plant and an amateur paleontologist who thinks it would be a good idea to hold a weekly discussion group where patients can share their knowledge. At first only men attend, but soon some of the female patients join the Wednesday afternoon sessions. So does Eudora MacEachern, a local girl from the staff, and Naomi Martin, Eudora's best friend, who Miles has hired as his driver. At these gatherings, attendees talk of new phenomena that are shaping the century: utopian societies, Stravinsky's music, Einstein's theory of relativity, the aforementioned Chekhov. And, of course, the war that rages in Europe.
At the center of the story that unfolds is a love quadrangle. Miles has fallen in love with Naomi, who has no interest in the older man, despite his wealth and position, or the prodding of her social-climbing mother. She is obsessed with Leo Marburg, a sanatorium patient who left behind a career as a chemist in Odessa to come to America, where he has been forced to accept menial labor that belies his advanced training. For his part, Leo barely knows Naomi exists. His attentions are focused instead on Eudora, whom he meets while working alongside her in the basement laboratory run by another immigrant, Irene Piasecka, a pioneer in the nascent field of X-rays. But Eudora, faithful to her lifelong friend, Naomi, tries to put off Leo's timid advances.
With America on the verge of entering World War I, distrust is in the air and Miles, who has lost a beloved young protégé to German mustard gas, joins the alarmists who brand foreigners as German spies or possible communist agitators. When a tragedy occurs at Tamarack State, Miles will exploit circumstantial evidence to place Leo, his romantic rival, under suspicion. As the narrator laments about Chekhov, further summary of the plot would ruin everything, and the beauty in this story can be found elsewhere anyway. Readers of Barrett's earlier novels, Servants of the Map, The Voyage of the Narwhal and Ship Fever, will discover interconnections with characters and events from those books, but The Air We Breathe can be read as a stand-alone work. A highly atmospheric evocation of a time when the world was rapidly changing, it is exquisitely wrought historical fiction. But even more, Barrett's narrative is timeless in its understanding of human impulses and desires, and of those infirmities that attack the soul.
Novelist Robert Weibezahl lives in California.