This fascination led to “The Cure,” the extraordinary last story in her collection Servants of the Map, a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Many writers might feel they’d exhausted the subject, but like a polar explorer on a fresh quest, Barrett revisits the lives of tubercular patients and healers in The Air We Breathe.
Tamarack State is a government-run institution whose patients have been forcibly removed from epidemic-prone New York City during the winter of 1916-17. The US is poised to enter The Great War, and revolution is brewing in Russia (homeland of many Tamarack patients, including chemist Leo Marburg, linchpin in the complex construction of crisscrossed romantic fixations that detonate the novel’s climax). Many of Leo’s fellow patients are immigrant laborers, and the enforced idleness of the rest cure spawns a dangerous level of boredom. When a rich industrialist, curing at a nearby private cottage, proposes a weekly discussion session in the mode of then-fashionable “workers’ circles,” many patients sign on enthusiastically. Neither the discussion group nor its leader turns out as expected.
Barrett has said she envisioned the novel as a “low-rent, democratic version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain,” but its parallels with E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime are equally striking: Many strands of social, political, and technological change interweave in a complex tapestry of indelible characters. Barrett’s is also a world in which women, refreshingly, operate heavy machinery as well as their male counterparts. Cars are still a novelty item that few can drive; X-rays and movies are technological miracles. All will feature prominently in the debacle that gives The Air We Breathe its narrative tension.
Six feet tall and angular, her face framed by a nimbus of wavy white hair, Barrett paints herself as a gawky klutz. Her description of winning the National Book Award for her first story collection, Ship Fever, sounds like a Chaplin one-reeler. The nomination shocked her. “The first edition of 6,000 had sold out, and we were delighted by that, certainly expected nothing more. The NBAs are like a bookish version of the Academy Awards, except they feed you. The nominees sit at tables and someone says, literally, ‘And the winner is....’ It was perfectly terrifying. No one expected my book to win. We were sitting against the back wall, eating hors d’oeuvres. I heard my name and spit food from my mouth—in the movies, they call it a ‘spit take.’”
Barrett, who’d never attended a black-tie event, had also forgotten her glasses, and tripped over Calvin Trillin’s feet on her way to the microphone. “I’m both shy and awkward—I’ve had most of it beaten out of me over the years, but back then . . . I was 41, but I had the social skills of a shy 22-year-old.” To this day, she’s intimidated by book touring and hates photo sessions, even with her photographer-husband, Barry Goldstein. “I don’t like being seen in that way,” she explains. “My work and myself are two different things. I’m really a domestic creature of habit, very dull. I walk the dog at the same time every day. I write every morning.”
This need for routine may be a response to an overly turbulent childhood. Barrett grew up on Cape Cod, in an ever-changing series of homes in Bourne, Pocasset, Barnstable—always “within sniffing range” of the ocean. Her father worked as a real-estate broker in Boston. An accomplished ski racer and ski patrolman, he named his daughter after Olympic medalist Andrea Mead Lawrence, carrying her downhill in a backpack and putting her on skis as soon as she could walk. Barrett’s grandfather helped to develop Vermont’s Mount Snow resort, and the family drove there every winter weekend.