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A-The Air We BreatheIn 1916, as the United States debates entering World War I, a group of patients at Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis in the Adirondacks meets weekly to share their vast knowledge and experiences on everything from chemistry to cinematography. Isolated from their families, the patients, many of them poor European immigrants, form a close-knit community where friendships and romances blossom and wealthy resident Miles Fairchild leads high-minded discussions. But when Leo Marburg, a former chemist from Russia, arrives, xenophobia and nativist sentiments rear their ugly heads, and a tragic accident brings America's involvement in war much closer to home.
Norton. 297 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0393061086

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Barrett possesses a modernist's view of valiant women in science; two in this novel seem too progressive for the times. Then again, her gift for story, for mining America's past, and her ability to construct a specific moment in the quest for knowledge are remarkable." Karen Heller

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Barrett's writing is most evocative when she's exploring the small rooms and narrow beds that make up the claustrophobic universe of the sick. ... The Air We Breathe is a muted tale of terror-terror that was relentlessly tamped down under cold air, milk and enforced rest." Maureen Corrigan

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] rueful Bildungsroman, which boldly replaces the conventional saga of a callow youth's education with the drama of a group of fallible adults who, buffeted by ugly political winds unloosed by a far-off war, betray their best instincts but are mature enough to eventually acknowledge their mistake. Barrett draws no facile parallels, but American readers will find uncomfortable contemporary resonance in her historical novel." Wendy Smith

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"This story line, fraught as it is with intrigue and deceit, ought to be juicy enough to carry the novel, but Barrett has weighted down the first two-thirds of the book with didactic passages that are clumsily inserted into the narrative-like the residents of Tamarack State, we are held hostage to treatises on cement and other cumbersome subjects." Gail Caldwell

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Barrett seems less interested in her story and characters than in her novel's metaphors and the science that generates them. ... Then there is the device of the discussion group itself, which enables the amazingly erudite sanitarium inmates to lecture us on any number of subjects, including local experiments in communal living, socialism, poison gas, the science of cinematography and that creaky literary war horse, Einstein's theory of relativity." Kevin Baker

Critical Summary

The Air We Breathe brings back descendants of some of the characters introduced in Andrea Barrett's National Book Award-winning Ship Fever (1996). Critics praise Barrett's detailed exploration of the sanatorium's claustrophobic quarters, patients' ceaseless boredom, and fear-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.