Andrea Barrett (2007) – The Air We Breathe

Overall: Not the best, but definitely one of the better works I’ve read recently.  Detailed notes below.


Interesting device: omniscient (?) first person plural “we” narrator.


Page 94: Sudden change of tone.  It’s difficult for me to articulate what changes, but I feel it quite strongly.  The change is introduced by a somewhat anomalous Eudora saying, “You know what I feel….  I tell you everything.” to Naomi.  Naomi’s reply feels trite and hackneyed: “No one really does, do they?”  How many times have we heard or read that line or its sentiment in books, plays, movies, or just plain real life?  Give me a break!


But the author segues from this dime-store (how many still remember what a dime-store was?) truism into two paragraphs that prove the point, not to Eudora, but to the reader.  Suddenly the reader comes face-to-face with Naomi’s dark side, which has not previously manifested itself in the narrative.


Things keep moving.  In the next chapter (Ch. 7), Leo receives a mystery love note and the game is afoot.  Then Ephraim is visited by Felix, “the younger brother of Rosa’s brother-in-law,” who leaves with Ephraim a box containing mysterious, likely explosive, objects; and Miles receives a letter from Lawrence (p. 106) that in two paragraphs particularize the horror of World War I trench warfare and the toll it took on the minds, the psyches, the humanity of those immersed and enmired in it.  The reader’s blood freezes upon reading those twelve lines.


In Chapter 8, irony: Dr. Petrie tells “us” about the effects of the German phosgene gas attacks on the lungs of those unfortunate enough to breathe it.  This is especially horrifying in a book about people infected with tuberculosis.  Miles declares himself to Naomi and (inexplicably, to me anyway) recounts to Dr. Petrie his conversation with her.


On p. 122, a wonderful turn of a phrase: “the rattled quartet”


Pp. 122-4: An interesting and erudite disquisition on the repeated failures of idealistic sects to establish long-lived utopian (sic — because I don’t think More’s Utopia describes a place anyone could tolerate for long) communities in the United States.


P. 125:  Naomi, for her part, has indignantly reported to Eudora Miles’ declaration of his feelings.


At the bottom of p. 125, the sentence beginning “But meanwhile” and continuing on the following page is truly remarkable in that it contains two almost totally unrelated thoughts and yet captures precisely the experience of listening to one thing and thinking about another.


P. 127:  First two sentences.  Wonderful foreshadowing: brings the future into the narrative present.  “Later, we’d all know what the drawing meant…”


P. 132:  Of Naomi: “How was a person to keep straight what she truly remembered, and what she remembered inventing?”


When, on p. 164, we learn that the pencils in the box left to Leo by Ephraim are incendiary devices, I am reminded (unfavorably) of the shopworn dramatic convention that it there is a pistol on the table in act one, somebody will have used it by the end of act two.  So, I’m now saying to myself, oh, I hope the author is more imaginative than that, but I’m fearing that she isn’t, and I read on with a sense that I’m going to be disappointed.


The plot thickens and bubbles.  I keep reading, but I’m losing interest until…


Movie Night (p.195 ff.)  The infatuations of Miles for Naomi, Naomi for Leo, and Leo for Eudora are rather Shakespearean.  They take possession of the person as an obsession, driving them relentlessly and irrationally.  It’s like the action of the love potions in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  The one ensorceled dotes on the object of his or her love against all reason, invoking hope as justification.


P. 204: Naomi rushes out of the movie room and Eudora, after a moment, follows her.  I love the snide omniscient tone of the narrative: “In the corridor Eudora turned right — she should have turned left…”


P. 204: The author ups the ante again.  The pistol that was on the table in act one is fired.  Is this a phosgene gas attack?  I am totally disoriented.


P. 221: More irony: No, it was burning film, which yields suffocating carbon monoxide plus nitrous compounds which become nitric acid when they combine with moisture in the lungs.  So now we know why the author told us about phosgene.  Nice tie-in.


Pp. 239 – 262: Booooo!  Hiss!  Miles’ behavior and the accusations against Leo are all totally predictable, including the willingness of the narrative chorus to assume the worst.


Pp. 262-265:  Leo’s reminiscences do not further the narrative.  A useless flashback, I say.


Pp. 266-end: The author’s inspiration returns to carry the reader to a satisfying denouement. 


And the narrative chorus finally finds its penitent rest.



Additional thoughts:


When I discovered the genealogical chart in the back of the book, I was puzzled.  I certainly didn’t need a genealogical chart to follow this story.  What’s more, most of the people on the chart were people I never heard of, and I certainly didn’t feel any need to know about them.  Of course I figured out pretty quickly that the chart was a clue that the author had written other books in which various subsets of these characters featured.  In truth, I don’t care.  In fact, I’m a bit annoyed to have an author (or the author’s publisher) tell me that this book’s story won’t stand on its own.  I think it does just fine, thank you very much. 


In retrospect, the almost total disappearance of Naomi from the narrative once the author has managed to get her to accidentally set off the incendiary pencil is quite unsatisfactory.  I suppose the author had to get rid of her in order to sustain the mystery about exactly what happened for a few chapters and to give readers the opportunity to think the worst of her.  I’m not sure that an exigencies-of-the-plot defense is acceptable in the court of great literature.  I don’t think The Air We Breathe is on the level of The Red and the Black, but the latter also succumbs at the end to an exigencies-of-the-plot difficulty. 


Interesting parallelism: I was perfectly willing to believe that Naomi had set the fire on purpose (possibly not knowing quite how devastating it would be), and to the extent that that is how most readers felt at that point in the narrative, we the readers have jumped to the same conclusion vis-à-vis Naomi that “we” the narrative chorus jump to vis-à-vis Leo.


Still, Naomi’s demotion from full-blown character to plot device is rather a smack in the face, and the few dribs and drabs of information about Naomi after the fire really don’t do anything to change the feeling.  I try to make a case for the idea that “we” (the narrative chorus) however omniscient it may be about things in the environs of Tamarack Lake, is limited in its knowledge to that neighborhood alone.  I don’t convince myself.  

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