The Air We Breathe

Written by Andrea Barrett
Review by William Thornton

The First World War looms in the background of this intimate novel, which borrows slightly in themes and setting from Mann’s The Magic Mountain, though with a distinctly American point of view. The inmates of Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis in New York cope with the demands of their condition, and the rigors of overcoming it. And yet at the same time, like a patient who must remain still to keep the tubercular bacteria at bay, America maintains an uneasy and uncertain neutrality while Europe’s civilization commits suicide on the battlefield.

The novel’s characters represent some of that civilization, transplanted into the Adirondacks. Leo Marburg, for example, brings his scientific knowledge and memories of Russia. Barrett weaves these strains into the overall story deftly, as well as the minutiae of treating tuberculosis. Care for these patients is often, strangely enough, stifling. This creates a startling, antiseptic atmosphere, so that when one character muses “how empty it is here,” she is not only commenting on the place but the disconnected lives of the patients and those around them.

A weekly discussion group gives some solace and hope, new information for people impatient for knowledge of any kind. But like the collapsing world around them, hopes for a new world in these talks are scorched by plumes of smoke and encroaching reality. What matters in this novel are the casual bonds formed by people thrown together by fear and tragedy, and how tightly drawn those bonds can be, and how lasting.