LibraryThing arranged to get me an advance reading copy of The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett in exchange for a review (either positive or negative). So, here we go.
The Air We Breathe is another “antique science fiction” novel by Andrea Barrett. I’ve just made up the genre of “antique science fiction,” and as far as I know, Andrea Barrett is its only practitioner. Unlike conventional science fiction, which speculates about scientific advances to come, antique science fiction focuses on the scientific advances of the past. Like Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, the other two Barrett novels I have read, The Air We Breathe tells the story of the scientific advances of an earlier age and the impact that had on characters’ lives. In this novel, Barrett lovingly dwells on the advances in chemistry, physics, and archaeology in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. However, because the novel is set in a WWI-era sanatorium, what most impacts the characters lives are the scientific advances that haven’t yet happened.
The rough plot arc of the novel makes me think of Paradise Lost. In the beginning of the novel, you’re introduced to characters who have lost nearly everything, both materially (many are poor immigrants) and socially, being exiled to the living death of forced rest & recuperation. In the first part of the novel, I had to continually remind myself that I wasn’t reading about elderly patients in a nursing home. These are vigorous people in their 20s and 30s who are suddenly forced to do nothing. Slowly, the patients at Tamarack State Sanatorium build an idealistic community organized around a love of learning and teaching each other — their own mini-paradise. Then, as with Adam and Eve, out-of-control passions bring the paradise to a sudden and tragic end.
You don’t want to read this book for its plot. Because most of the characters have to do nothing more than sit and breathe the cool air of the Adirondacks, there’s not a lot of action. You also probably don’t want to read the book to try to find nuanced, realistic characters. For the most part, Barrett’s characters neatly fall into one of three categories: Saintly, calm personalities with diverse backgrounds but united by their love of learning; Obsessive, selfish, and destructive characters; and the narrators who “?lived as if we were already dead, as if we’d died when we were diagnosed and nothing we did after that mattered?”
That said, I loved the book. I loved it because it vividly carried my imagination back to 1916. For a few hours, my mind soaked up that other universe. I felt the dread of being in the tomb-like atmosphere of a sanatorium. I felt hopeful as teaching, the arts, and the sciences woke up the patients at Tamarack State and gave them hope. I felt saddened as the delicate, utopian community shattered on its impact with irrational human passions. And finally my mind can’t stop thinking through this fictional story of 1916 to find what it says about human nature that is still true in 2007.
Especially if you love science, this book will take you on a worthwhile intellectual journey. Worth reading.