I don’t know how I muscled through this, how my eyes in the dark continuously focused on these words that weren’t beautiful, or even at all interesting. I managed to amuse myself with a series called “tea art.” See my newest feature, “Ginger Pear” to your left.
This is the second book of boring that I’ve read by Andrea Barrett. Her stories in Ship Fever (which contained the Mendel Pea Story which I was so fond of) won the National Book Award and prompted me to give her a second chance at wowing me with The Air We Breathe. (Yes, I expect to be wowed, I’m a book snob). I was especially interested on how she narrates with the group (first-person plural) “we.” While I think this is an imaginative concept and really outlines the group thought that goes on and becomes extremely important by the end of the book, it didn’t make the read worth it.
I think where my problems lie with Barrett are in pacing, and detail. Her pacing is unbelievable slow. It took me a wild 5 days to get through this book. I wasn’t inspired to continue picking it up and not interested in the main characters enough to keep striving. I should have just flipped to the family history at the end of the book to discover that Leo and Eudora (fabulous name) do in fact marry and live endlessly in love and without tuberculosis for the rest of their days. Instead, I read on like a girl floating on a chunk of wooden barge during calm sea times.
The book is set in 1916 at a Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The threat of war is imminent and by the end is upon everyone in the town. I think this is part of the problem why the collective “we” didn’t work. I hardly got to know the voice of any characters even though a main part of the plot are these Wednesday meetings when someone from the local sick speaks about themselves and anything they’d like to educate others on. I thought this was such an interesting way to get people connecting in a story, set them in a meeting. It’s like going to an AA meeting – of course you’re going to find characters, or a Bible Study meeting. You can’t tell me their aren’t bonneted Baptist women with gray comb overs that are shouting to you from the page. Just imagine their red face upon the latest town marriage, or the shrill of their voices as they gossip.
A meeting is such a great setting for a fictional environment and yet the meetings were inherently boring. One of the things Barrett has been praised for is her use of science and technology in fiction. However, in these parts where I should be dying to understand fossils, or really feeling the radiation of x-rays before they were perfected, I was left dulled and sighing. The only time the x-rays really made my heart twinge was when Eudora x-rayed Leo and through this the reader was able to see just how biological love can be, just how scientific. Doesn’t the wife of a husband who’s had a heart attack think about that heart afterwards, think about the vessels and how that thick red mud is sloshing through them, where the nutrients are, what he should eat? Love, as inherently biological is another great concept.
Unfortunately, this may be a case of a lack in beautiful writing. Not once in 297 pages did I feel the need to scribble down a beautiful phrase. In a story of love, sickness and war, there should be beauty. There should be beauty and not boredom in that loneliness, and that excitement. Instead, I was neither taken with the word choice (the details) or angry with them. I felt that this was just a story told straight, nothing fancy. And where’s the fun in that? Did Barrett rely solely on the “we” to make this a book of genius?
There were moments in Ship Fever where I wanted to eat the page; rip-it-broken down the binding, crumple it into my fist and shove it into my soaked mouth. I didn’t, of course because I’m not a Destructor, but those moments are important in any book. All books should be held to beauty. I know that everyone’s idea of beauty is different, but books should move people. Books should make you stay up past lights out, and hold a flashlight past when your arm is tired and those sleep pins are pricking because your blood has stopped flowing. They should make you want to EAT PAPER, eat words, eat. Then on the other hand they should starve you, they should make you bleed to find out what the character will do next, what way the writer will describe a wooden fence in the country.
I’m not saying don’t read Barrett, or don’t read The Air We Breathe, just be forewarned that it isn’t something you’ll hold in your hands like gold. Hey, maybe it would make a great movie. This book will move you to create art out of a draining tea bag, let the tainted water puddle over the scrap paper.