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The Air We Breathe

3.38 of 5 stars 3.38  ·  rating details  ·  1,073 ratings  ·  252 reviews
"An evocative panorama of America…on the cusp of enormous change" (Newsday) by the National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever.

In the fall of 1916, America prepares for war—but in the community of Tamarack Lake, the focus is on the sick. Wealthy tubercular patients live in private cure cottages; charity patients, mainly immigrants, fill the large public sanatorium. Pr
...more
Hardcover, 297 pages
Published October 17th 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2007)
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Robyn
Set in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 1916 as the U.S. prepares to enter WWI, this story follows the lives of patients and care providers at a tuberculosis sanitarium for the indigent. Near the beginning of the novel, a wealthy business man, also staying in the mountains to recover from TB – but at one of the private cure cottages only afforded to the privileged, decides to begin a Wednesday lecture series at the sanitarium, whereby every Wednesday evening a different person (startin ...more
Juanita Rice

"In the first place, tuberculosis is largely a disease of the poor—of those
on or below the poverty line
. " –The Tuberculosis Nurse, Ellen N. LaMotte
(1915)


Years ago I first encountered Andrea Barrett's novel Servants of the Map (2002) a book I marvelled at. Intellectually stimulating, it was simultaneously history, geopolitics, technology and science, psychology, and a writing style that could be in turns symbolic, lyric and good suspenseful narrative. And written by a woman who could and did
...more
PlushyPirate
I read this on a recommendation from a professor because I write similar things, so part of my enjoyment of this book is from a purely nerdy writerly point of view. Fair warning!

The point of view of the book is odd -- it's mostly "we" with a lot of points where it becomes a specific person, often one that the "we" should know nothing about. It's a little disconcerting at first, but if you just roll with it, it works, and there's a good explanation for why, but you have to wait until the last pa
...more
Leah
May 10, 2009 Leah rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Andryl
Shelves: library-book, fiction
A most excellent book; it even ties together some of the frustrating short stories in Ship Fever and manages to connect them to Voyage of the Narwhal, without intruding on the fascinating story set forth in its own pages.
Situated in a small town in New York state during the 1910's, the book focuses on the lives of patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium and their caretakers. Weaving romance with intellectual curiosity, Andrea Barrett draws the reader into the world she's created. Less focused on t
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Laura
This is one of very few books I've read that effectively utilizes the first-person plural for narration. Because of the characters and setting -- patients in a tuberculosis ward, drawn together only for the purpose of getting well and confined all day to laying around and gossiping about each other -- the "we" works well as a narrative voice, emphasizing that shared space and lack of privacy. Through the narrators, characters come to light and are fleshed out beautifully -- some who appear sympa ...more
Steve Smits
I am familiar with the villages of the Adirondacks where this novel is set. In Tupper Lake, there is an institution now called Sunmount Developmental Center that was the site in the late 19th & early 20th centuries of a tuberculosis sanitarium. I have visited Sunmount many times it my professional capacity (it now houses persons with developmental disabilities). Perhaps this is the state institution that Barrett uses as the Tamarack sanitarium. Nearby Saranac Lake is well-known for its histo ...more
Rick
This is Barrett’s fourth book since she hit her stride as a writer, her eighth over all. Her two best works are the short story collections, Ship Fever and Servants of the Map. Plus there is the very good novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal. All three have certain characters that overlap, scientists, immigrants, wanderers. Descendents of a couple of these characters make it into this novel set in an upstate New York tuberculosis sanatorium and its surrounding village, where wealthier tubercular pat ...more
Angele
Barrett brings her skill in mixing science with human history to this novel set in a tuberculosis sanitarium in New York's Adirondack Mountains in 1916. Human progress and human folly march side-by-side, like the WWI soldiers doomed by mustard gas and machine-gun fire. At Tamarack State, tubercular patients can see detailed X-rays of their damaged lungs--but in the absence of antibiotics, must rely for a "cure" on isolation, rest, fresh air, bland food, and cheerful thoughts. Cheerful thoughts a ...more
Sean Cronin
This book is set in a tuberculous sanitarium in 1916. It deals with the relationships between the patients and nurses and doctors.
It is a sad book - face it, the patients aren't getting out alive. And Barrett's prose reflects this sadness: careful, exact, mild. She deserves a lot of credit for pulling this off for 200 pages.
This story would have benefited from a bit more affect. To me, it was very flat. A Nurse and a patient are falling in love, but by golly Barret isn't going to up the pace or
...more
Mrs. Foley
From Follett -- Conflict and resentments break out in a small Adirondack town in the fall of 1916 when Miles Fairchild, a wealthy resident living in a "cure cottage" while being treated for tuberculosis, decides to start a discussion group with patients--mostly poor European immigrants--confined in the state-run sanitorium.

This book is one of the finalists for Columbia's One Read. It does cover the historical period in an interesting way (through the stories of the patients and workers at the sa
...more
jill
Set at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondack mountains at the brink of WWI. I really liked this setting and time period: there's great excitement over advancements in scientific technology, like x-rays and warfare, and the recently immigrated Jewish patients have interesting stories. But ultimately, I just found this book sort of dull. I didn't believe in many of the characters and got turned off by an overdone connection between patriotic zealotry then and now. I've never read anything el ...more
Ashley
"Oh, hey another book about a tuberculosis sanatorium! I'll read it!" - my immediate reaction to this book.

It took me about a year to actually get to reading this book. It was...ok. I mean, writing wise, 4/5. Story wise? I really couldn't get into any of the characters. They all seemed flat to me. I guess it has to do with the narrative style - the narrator is an anonymous person in the sanatorium, who basically narrates as a group - he refers to "we" as in all the patients. It was actually a p
...more
Jacque
Pluses:
Fascinating and amazing interweaving of various sciences, science history and social history into the characters lives and as plot points: x-ray development, paleontology, chemical weapons, medicine, TB sanitoreums, Life in small town upstate New York adirondacks, public and community action and reaction to possible supporters of nations war enemies, etc. I really like how rich in content this novel is.

Descriptions of how some of the characters thought and made decisions.

Many scenes beaut
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Babs
I read this book because after reading "A Farewell To Arms" I went on a kind of World War I unit study and this novel has WWI as it's backdrop. The setting is a TB "Cure Town" in upstate NY during the 191*s. Along with the characters and storyline, one also gets an education on the development of X-Rays, Chemistry, WWI geography, the effect of chlorine gas on the human body, and many other topics. It's like the author had some scientific knowledge she wanted to share, and then built a story arou ...more
Linda
This book was a gift, together with The Magic Mountain. I know that some rave about The Magic Mountain, but I don't think I have ever read anything more boring. I can take boring, but not with a character like that. This book - The Air We Breathe - might not be so boring, but I have just discovered, at my advanced age, that a male protagonist immediately puts me off a book. This realization should serve to make future visits to the library much more productive.
Ali
Not particularly satisfying. It did sketch out a time and place (a TB sanatorium near the beginning of the 20th century) unfamiliar to me, and gave a lot of info about the medical treatment, and politics, of TB. But I was uncomfortable with the third-person plural narration. I could accept it as the collective hive mind of the inmates of the sanatorium, isolated from the outside world and assimilating the knowledge of anything that happened in their inner world with the speed of rumor. But this ...more
Strawfoot
I often love historical fiction and have a minor interest in diseases of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It could have been great. A tuberculosis sanitarium for immigrants....it all started out with good character development and quickly devolved into a pat ending...
grr.
Tracy
I started out very enthused about this book. I liked the writing style and I thought the setting of a sanitarium for consumption in the early 20th century would be quite intriguing. In the first half of the book I felt Barrett did a great job of telling the character's stories to get the reader invested. I felt sympathetic to their situation and found the interaction between characters to be interesting for awhile...I'm not sure exactly why but the second half of the book became tedious for me d ...more
Melanie
Four stars until the family tree on the last two pages tied up everything (and I do mean everything, and for two generations after the one that this book is concerned with, to boot) just a little (okay, a lot) too neatly.
Cynthia
This is one of those books that sticks to your ribs. I find myself thinking back to it over and over. This is the first Barret I've read but definitely one I'll read more from.
Darin
A sly observation of the penchant for gossip amongst people forced to spend time together, Andrea Barrett's The Air We Breathe manages to distill the often overlooked time prior to US involvement in World War I and offer it up as a reflection of current American society.

Leo Marburg is a poor immigrant struggling to make a living in New York City when he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and eventually makes his way to Tamarack Lake, a TB cure community in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. There
...more
evan
This was a very well written novel, but in the end, it was fine to read, but I didn't really like it or love it.

The setting for the story was at a curing house of tuberculosis in the 1910s in upstate new york. As a piece of historical fiction, I thought it was lovely: I got swept into a part of the world I did not know about and learned a lot about the time and the people of the time.

My biggest complaint with the novel was done deliberately by the author, and I understand why, but it left me no
...more
Justine
So far I like it but feel like there's some false suspense. I'm being led by the nose a bit. ** Yep, now that I am finished, I feel manipulated. I ended up liking the book despite itself. The descriptions of the environment and characters are perfect. I could not only see the places in my head but really feel the differences in the social hierarchy. The contrasts between the WWI battlefields and the sanatoria were powerful and Barrett offers plenty to think about. However, I didn't really get to ...more
Marvin
Other Andrea Barrett fans say that this is not her best work, but I liked this more intimate book better than the two of hers I read that were set on a grander scale, The Voyage of the Narwhal & The Middle Kingdom. This one's set in a state sanatorium in upstate New York. As the working-class inmates are recovering from TB, an industrialist recovering at a more upscale institution nearby forms some of them into a discussion group. They eventually take it over & remake it from his paterna ...more
David
This novel is set in a tuberculosis cure facility in the Adirondack mountains of New York’s lake district, in the years leading up to the first world war. The approach at dealing with the lung disease was to have lots of fresh mountain air, good nutrition, minimal exercise, peaceful rest. The residents of the public sanatorium are mostly low-income immigrants, while the wealthier victims stay in nearby private cure cottages with better care.

In this isolated setting, the patients, doctors, and re
...more
Coleen
I'm not sure if the cover photograph &/or the title had anything to do with it, but I had been wanting to read this since it was first released several years ago. The story centers around a group of people diagnosed with tuberculosis during the time of World War I, who are "curing" in a medical sanitorium in the Adirondacks. Sadly, the plot doesn't get a whole lot more exciting than that. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is one of the patients there, but we never hear anything at ...more
Kenny
One delicious gulp of absolutely gorgeous storytelling at the end there. It is a very light touch on extremely weighty matters, that makes me feel so involved in a story, more than I have felt in much of fiction. That is masterful, in itself, but also how engrossed I became with the lives of the principal characters, how much I felt for them and with them - ah, tragic hero Leo Marburg, Eudora, Irene, Dr. Petrie, even Miles and Naomi. It is clear there are clear divisions between scientific obses ...more
Tim
“The Air We Breathe” provides an insight into tuberculosis sanatoriums but also is a mix of science, World War I paranoia and romantic entanglements that takes forever to gather momentum.

Set primarily in a 100-plus-patient sanatorium in the mountains of upstate New York, before and during America’s involvement in the war, the world of “The Air We Breathe” is altered by the weekly gatherings begun by Miles, a 37-year-old tuberculosis sufferer in an upscale cottage. Driven weekly to the Tamarack S
...more
Richard Hunt
A book club read for me, Barrett very confidently takes the reader back to the days when tuberculosis ravaged cities' populations, eventually suspending the lives of those who contracted the disease while also paralyzing those not infected by the fear of this invisible menace.

So much was going on in American society at the time -- industry was booming, women were finally being recognized in terms of equal rights and accomplishments, and science emerged as much more than an academic field, but
...more
Bridget
This story, which takes place as World War I is underway at a sanitorium in the Adirondacks, was one I wanted to read after reading a blurb about it on a "Book of the Day" calendar a co-worker gave me for Christmas. The time period is one of my favorites, and I was intrigued that the action all occurred at the sanitorium. The story focuses from the beginning on one of the patients, Leo Marburg, who we meet as he is first arriving after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. The narrator remains some ...more
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Andrea Barrett is the author of The Air We Breathe, Servants of the Map (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
More about Andrea Barrett...
Ship Fever: Stories The Voyage of the Narwhal Servants of the Map Archangel: Fiction Middle Kingdom

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