In Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe it is 1916, and the threat of war is strong. But in the Adirondacks, patients and staff at a public TB sanatorium are distanced from the outside world. Here rest and food are the two most important ingredients in the prescribed cure for tuberculosis. The sanatorium is its own little universe, full of gossip and romances, friendships, and — mostly– boredom. The majority of the patients are poor immigrants, but there are several who are wealthy and live in their own separate cure cottages. One of these is Miles Fairchild, who decides to begin a weekly meeting where each patient can take a turn speaking about something they loved from their previous lives. In his case, it is fossil hunting, in others it may be music, film-making, chemistry, or just home. A devoted member of this informal club is the new Leo Marburg, young and handsome, who before immigrating was an established chemist, but since coming to America has been forced to do menial jobs because of his social status. Soon, the world at the sanatorium is disrupted, and its path begins to mirror the war occurring outside. People turn on each other, Miles suspects German and Russian spies, and one final tragedy will permanently change the course of many lives, including Leo’s.
I was very impressed with the way Barrett created a whole society within the confines of the sanatorium. The perspective of the novel is sometimes omniscient and othertimes written from that of an unnamed patient, experiencing and seeing what others see and experience, and talking in a collective “we”. This narration I found very personal and poignant, as if I were part of the “we” as well.
Each of these patients cannot escape their diagnosis and sickness, yet they still are human enough to fall in love with, or turn against, others around them. The Air We Breathe is steeped in science and discovery. Between the still new technology of x-rays, and the talk of the up-and-comer scientist Albert Einstein, this work is smart and in tune with its time period. The Air We Breathe becomes not only a book about tuberculosis, but also a novel about science and discovery, societal inequalities, tragedy and war, suspicion, love, and hope. A great novel for anyone interested in the history of TB, which is very much a social disease, and the people who tried to make a lives for themselves confined to a place where you either recover or die.