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Detail-laden approach keeps Barrett's 'Air' from flying

ANDREA BARRETT ANDREA BARRETT (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

The Air We Breathe
By Andrea Barrett
Norton, 297 pp., $24.95

With the meticulous vision of a cartographer, Andrea Barrett has given us her version of the world - its emotional and geographical coordinates - in an estimable body of fiction. The time is usually the late 19th century, and her people are expeditionists and nurses and immigrants: the bones and scaffolding of the culture, in other words, their private miseries and triumphs suggesting the growth and failures of the modern era. The stories are sometimes connected with a gossamer, even off-handed, ease - a grandfather appears in ancestral memory in one book ("Ship Fever") only to appear in his latest incarnation as a young patient in a sanitarium in another. History and science are the unshakable gods of Barrett's edifice, containing the world but also explaining it. At its finest, this vision enhances the lives of her characters: We are each of us, as she titled her previous, remarkable novel, servants of the map.

And yet sometimes those vast pillars of history and science can seem more imposing than structurally essential, which is too often the case with "The Air We Breathe." Set in a state-run facility for indigent tuberculosis patients in the Adirondacks, the novel unfolds over 1916 and 1917, the critical years of America's entrance into the First World War, and the sanitarium is a microcosm for the shifts in global allegiances and disaffections. Several characters are crucial to this choreography, their private histories merging or colliding with those of their fellow patients and medical clientele. Tamarack State, as the hospital is known, is a quasi-pastoral community where the deeply ill have been shunted and shunned; Leo Marburg, the mild-mannered, 26-year-old protagonist of the novel, was shipped here from Brooklyn after a bloody cough at his factory job sent him into quarantine. The place is run according to the medical sentiments and dictates of the time. The campus newsletter, The Kill-Gloom Gazette, admonishes residents with its titular good cheer; rest and scalding water and emotional blandness are considered the strongest arsenal against the tubercle bacillus.

Equally virulent is the world beyond those Adirondack hills - a new place of trench warfare and poisonous gases, of broken alliances and suspect immigrants and preparedness campaigns. A wealthy industrialist, Miles Fairchild, is the embodiment of the ensuing reactionary climate; he's recovering at a private home for tuberculosis patients down the road from Tamarack State, and organizes a weekly show-and-tell at the hospital, mostly as a sounding board for his own ego. Miles rounds up the desperately understimulated patients to tell them about his cement plant, or about his fossil excursions as a boy, until they're all dozing in spite of themselves. A pompous fellow with a strong anti-German sentiment, he's surprised to realize that Leo (his antithesis in background and demeanor) seems to know more about Darwin and Einstein and chemical reactions than he does. Trained as a chemist in his native Odessa, Leo finds an ally in Irene Piasecka, the devoted, mysterious woman who runs the X-ray lab at Tamarack. She makes a friend for life when she sees Leo for the idea-starved scientist he is, and gives him her old chemistry textbooks.

So: Leo with the Eastern European Jewish past; Miles with the might-is-right, victory-garden present - this is the dangerous dyad of "The Air We Breathe," its own internal chemistry bound to cause an explosive reaction no one can contain. Crucial to the dramatic tension of the story are two young women: Eudora, a kind-hearted nurse at the facility who begins to help out Irene in the lab, and her best friend, Naomi, whose mother runs the care home where Miles resides. Leo has a secret affection for Eudora, and Naomi, whom Miles adores, has an unbridled crush on Leo; the ensuing romantic quartet is about is volatile as bleach and ammonia. But where Eudora is serious and reliable, Naomi is flighty and disingenuous - she acts out her youthful frustration at her provincial trappings by stealing from the patients. When she goes through Leo's things at the hospital, an act of pathetic mischief turns into something far worse - and paves the way for calamity and treachery both.

This story line, fraught as it is with intrigue and deceit, ought to be juicy enough to carry the novel, but Barrett has weighted down the first two-thirds of the book with didactic passages that are clumsily inserted into the narrative - like the residents of Tamarack State, we are held hostage to treatises on cement and other cumbersome subjects. Unlike the scientific and historical ballast of "Ship Fever" and "Servants of the Map," such detail here often feels more pedantic than illuminating. Occasionally the weave takes: Barrett's descriptions of the war in France, particularly through the eyes of a doctor who served there, are riveting. And when Leo explains an evolutionary concept and its translation in Russian - "what's lost is gone for good" - you can't help feeling the weight of his emotional past as well his insight into Darwin.

Such moments ought to be more prevalent in "The Air We Breathe," which, in its last 100 pages, is as compelling as one might have wished for the entire novel. One misfire in strategy is partly to blame: Barrett has made her narrator a ghostly "we," and this construct - risky under the best of circumstances - is only fully explained in the novel's final pages. By then, the metaphorical impact of the group narration has lost its punch: A lot of us have simply nodded off in class.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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