Barrett, Andrea 1954-
Barrett, Andrea 1954-
Born November 16, 1954, in Boston, MA; daughter of Walter Barrett and Jacquelyn Knifong. Education: Union College, B.S., c. 1985; University of Massachusetts, graduate studies.
Home—North Adams, MA. Agent—Wendy Weil Literary Agency, 232 Madison Ave., Ste. 1300, New York, NY 10016.
Writer. Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, instructor in the M.F.A. program; Williams College, instructor.
Distinguished Story citation, Best American Short Stories, 1995, for "The Littoral Zone"; National Book Award, 1996, for Ship Fever, and Other Stories; Guggenheim foundation grant, c. 1997; National Endowment for the Arts grant; MacArthur Fellow, 2001; O. Henry Award, 2001, for "Servants of the Map"; Pulitzer Prize finalist in fiction, 2003, for Servants of the Map.
Lucid Stars, Dell (New York, NY), 1988.
Secret Harmonies, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.
The Middle Kingdom, Pocket (New York, NY), 1991.
The Forms of Water, Pocket (New York, NY), 1993.
The Voyage of the Narwhal, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
The Air We Breathe, Norton (New York, NY), 2007.
Ship Fever, and Other Stories, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
Servants of the Map, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Work represented in anthologies, including "The Littoral Zone," Best American Short Stories, 1995.
(And compiler) The Diabetic's Brand-name Food Exchange Handbook, foreword by Charles R. Shuman, Running Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
(Contributor, with Rick Moody) Larry Dark, editor, Prize Stories, the Best of 1998: The O. Henry Awards, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1998.
(Author of introduction) Paula Fox, The Widow's Children (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
(Author of introduction) Chauncey C. Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor, with Peter Turchi) The Story behind the Story: 26 Writers and How They Work, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Mademoiselle and Prairie Schooner.
Andrea Barrett is an acclaimed writer. "She crafts powerfully vivid works of fiction," lauded Samuel Baker in a Publishers Weekly profile of Barrett. Lucid Stars, her first novel, spans more than twenty years in detailing the dissolution of an American family. The novel's heroine, Penny Webb, falls in love with, and is soon married to, carefree skier Benjamin Day. Almost immediately, Penny finds herself pregnant and unhappy, for Benjamin has already begun forsaking her for other women. Penny realizes a measure of consolation by attending to her twin children and indulging her interest in the stars. Benjamin eventually leaves Penny for a younger woman; he remarries, fathers a third child, and then leaves his second wife for a still younger woman. Penny, meanwhile, comes to perceive the various family members—herself, the twins, her ex-husband, his ex-wife and child, and his third wife—as similar to the shifting heavenly bodies in space. James Marcus, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Lucid Stars "a spacious and sympathetic debut."
Secret Harmonies, Barrett's next novel, is also about family ties. Here an engaging young woman, Reba Dwyer, wallows in rural Massachusetts with her meek, introspective brother, Hank, and her handicapped sister, Tonia. After a period of rebellion, Reba parts from her family and enters a conservatory. While there, she fails to ingratiate herself with her ostensibly more sophisticated fellow students, and when her father suddenly abandons the family, Reba returns home. She eventually enters into a dreary marriage with a longtime friend, whom she soon begins compromising with a series of unfulfilling sexual flings. Faced with further unhappiness, Reba finally begins to understand the necessity of coming to terms with herself and the often elusive nature of contentment. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Secret Harmonies "poignant and atmospheric," and praised Barrett's "elegant, accessible writing."
In her 1991 novel, The Middle Kingdom, Barrett once again writes about a character overcoming unhappiness to gain a measure of understanding about self-identity and life. Overweight, thirty-year-old Grace Hoffmeier accompanies her estranged husband to Beijing and then falls ill with pneumonia. She lies in a Chinese hospital and feverishly recalls her college days, her earlier marriage, and her romance with her husband, who has continued touring Beijing with a new lover while Grace recovers from her illness. After regaining her health, Grace also finds a lover and, moreover, a job in Beijing. In addition, she learns to focus on the present, without regrets for the past or anxieties about the future. "Ms. Barrett is a solid writer, and The Middle Kingdom is a thoughtfully plotted book," judged Cheri Fein in the New York Times Book Review. The book is "an interesting story of personal growth," commented Library Journal contributor Kimberly G. Allen.
In 1993 Barrett published The Forms of Water, a multi-generational tale about a family living in upstate New York. The aging patriarch, Brendon Auberon, convinces his nephew, Henry, to steal a nursing-home vehicle and conduct him to the abbey where he had once lived as a monk. The journey of Brendon and Henry alarms other family members, who unite in an attempt to apprehend the old man and return him to his nursing home. During the ensuing action, various characters recall earlier, often unhappy events, many of which contributed to the dissolution of the extended family. Belles Lettres reviewer Bettina Berch described The Forms of Water as a "well-structured novel" and complained only about the extended summary that concludes the novel after the actual chase has ended. The reviewer added, however, that this ending, which was decried as "tedious," constituted "a small flaw in an otherwise satisfying novel." A contributor to Publishers Weekly praised the novel, noting that "Barrett writes with keen, finely tuned sensibilities."
Barrett followed The Forms of Water with Ship Fever, and Other Stories, her first collection of short stories. Like her novels, many of the stories in Ship Fever deal with family ties. "The Marburg Sisters," for example, is the tale of twin sisters, one of whom becomes a scientist while the other enters the drug culture. However, other stories are less characteristic of Barrett's novels. In "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," for example, a woman courts a student by relating the story of botanist Gregor Mendel, who vainly renounced decades of research to gain acceptance from fellow scientists. And in "Rare Bird," which is set in the eighteenth century, a female ornithologist compromises her own values while attempting to disprove the contentions of a fellow scientist. The title tale likewise occurs in the past. Here a doctor uncovers a typhus epidemic among immigrants arriving in Canada from Ireland, a land then in chaos due to the horrific potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Nation reviewer Molly E. Rauch noted "the ambitious range" of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, and Thomas Mallon wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the collection's "overall effect is quietly dazzling."
Ship Fever, and Other Stories "opened up diverse new audiences for Barrett," recognized Baker, who reported: "In 1996, Barrett surprised the publishing world by winning the National Book Award for fiction, in a decision that startled many industry insiders. Since then, the powerful volume that garnered the prize, [Ship Fever, and Other Stories], has won additional acclaim." It was, perhaps, because of the book's general focus that many were surprised it won the prestigious award. As Katherine Livingston indicated in Science, "books about science are rarely considered for literary awards." "The litcrowd chorus who wish their favorite books were chosen instead have no cause for complaint," commented Entertainment Weekly contributor Lisa Schwarzbaum, calling Ship Fever, and Other Stories an "admirable winner." Describing Barrett's collection of short fiction, Schwarzbaum praised: "Each [story] is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author's fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists."
Barrett's literary focus on science is not surprising, given her course of studies in college. Barrett intended to work in the field of science; she earned a degree in biology and did graduate studies in zoology. It was only while doing writer papers during her second stint of graduate studies, this time in medieval and Reformation theological history, that she began thinking of writing as a career.
In 1997 Barrett made use of a Guggenheim foundation grant to do research for her next project. Using what she experienced on a trip to Baffin Island, Barrett created The Voyage of the Narwhal—"a dynamic and insightful historical novel" that Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman believed "is even more prizeworthy" than Ship Fever. "[The Voyage of the Narwhal] resembles many of the stories in Ship Fever in its 19th-century setting and in its choice of a scientist as its protagonist. But by unfurling a larger canvas with The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett extends into new territory her uncanny ability to make stories of science past illuminate today's world," assessed Baker, who reported that the novel "imagines the trails of botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who signs on to a polar expedition led by his sister's dashing but dangerously immature suitor. The novel's drama eventually encompasses not only how they search for a previous, lost team of explorers, but also how they navigate the sea of publicity when they return to their native Philadelphia."
Barrett did not intend her "epic of 19th-century polar exploration" to be an adventure story, noted Baker. As she related to Baker: "What I was after was much more ruminative. In fact, although the research I was drawing from is full of adventure, I think this book is much less full of adventure. Its people are painters and writers, they're thinking and mulling, they're seeing, they're looking. They're not going out and slashing polar bears to death."
Though The Voyage of the Narwhal was very warmly received, some critics, including a Publishers Weekly reviewer, found fault with the slow pace of the story. John Skow's Time magazine assessment referred to it as a "powerful, brooding novel … that moves like an advancing ice age." Rating The Voyage of the Narwhal as an "A-," Megan Harlan judged in Entertainment Weekly: "Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett … masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism." Seaman used the descriptors "authoritative," "imaginative," "gripping," and "masterful" when praising the story. The Publishers Weekly reviewer also gave a very complimentary review, stating: "Barrett delivers a stunning novel in which a meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance."
Barrett returned to shorter fiction for her 2002 collection, Servants of the Map, a gathering of two novellas and four short stories that once again explore scientific themes. Two of the tales, "The Mysteries of Ubiquitur" and "The Forest," are set in modern times, while the others find their settings in history. The title novella deals with a cartographer who goes native in India's Himalayas. "The Cure," in the space of a novella, deals with several generations of hardship and difficulties from Ireland to the Adirondacks in a tale narrated by a nurse. A Kirkus Reviews critic had high praise for the collection, terming it "superb," as well as "gorgeous, illuminating, entrancing fiction." Writing in Book, Don McLeese observed: "Barrett's story collection cuts across continents and centuries, exploring the ways scientific inquiry, faith and the heart's desires converge." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "Travelers, naturalists, nurses, botanists, surveyors—a multitude of seekers and healers populate this luminous new collection." The same reviewer also felt that each of the tales "is rich and independent and beautiful and should draw Barrett many new admirers." Booklist reviewer Seaman also had praise for this story collection, concluding: "Barrett's characters are deep and self-possessed, and their stories, so intelligently and delectably told, both romanticize and validate the quest for understanding life that drives scientists and artists alike." An Economist critic was equally pleased with Servants of the Map, noting of its author: "Ms. Barrett has made the waters that swirl between a love of science and the science of love her special domain." The contributor went on to observe: "It is the precision of Ms. Barrett's words that makes her stories so rewarding, and the intelligence with which she creates bonds between characters from an age so different from our own that makes reading her such a joy." An Atlantic Monthly writer added to the chorus of praise for this work, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, noting that "scrupulous reportorial and rhetorical attention blends exactitude and compassion, giving clarity and emotional force to Barrett's investigations of people seeking to understand the laws that govern and trouble both the visible universe and their own invariably distinctive bodies and minds."
Barrett's 2007 work, The Air We Breathe, is her sixth novel. In it, she weaves a tale of tuberculosis patients and passion against the backdrop of World War I. The novel was partly inspired by the research Barrett did for her story "The Cure" in Servants of the Map. "While I was researching that story, I got really curious about the big public sanitariums where people who didn't have any money or families got sent," Barrett told Sarah Seltzer in a Publishers Weekly interview. Set in the Adirondacks of upstate New York in 1916, the novel is told in the first person plural and features four main protagonists: wealthy cement-plant owner Miles Fairchild, who is staying at a private guest house away from the sanatorium; Leo Marburg, a Polish-German immigrant at the sanatorium; young Naomi, who is Miles's driver; and the ward nurse and friend of Naomi's, Eudora. While Miles takes a fancy for Eudora, she does not return the affection, but is in love with Leo. However, Leo in turn has a secret yearning for Eudora. This tangled love quartet ultimately leads to tragedy when Miles becomes a super-patriot as the U.S. prepares to enter the war, and foreigners of all stripes come under scrutiny.
The Air We Breathe found champions and critics, and some who were a bit of both in their critical assessments. For example, a Kirkus Reviews critic noted: "This richly detailed, highly intelligent novel is too slowly paced to elicit reader interest early on, but it builds and persuades most impressively, creating a compelling picture." Though an Atlantic Monthly reviewer had praise for the manner in which "Barrett enriches her story with science—in this case, paleontology, organic chemistry, relativity, and, most interestingly, radiology," other reviewers complained of such detail at the expense of the development of characters. For example, San Francisco Chronicle writer Margot Kaminski noted: "The characters frequently seem too quickly categorized, even shallow." Similarly, Rocky Mountain News critic Jennie Camp observed that "the characters are disappointingly underdeveloped." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Kevin Baker also felt that "Barrett seems less interested in her story and characters than in her novel's metaphors and the science that generates them." For other critics, however, this was not a problem. Writing in the Telegraph, Lionel Shriver thought the science and quotidian details added to the novel's realism: "The details of life in a sanatorium are doubtless accurate, and passages about the ravages of radiation for the practitioners of the crude, too-powerful early X-ray are especially compelling." Bookreporter.com, contributor Nora Piehl thought the novel "will leave Barrett's readers reflecting on how her themes of war, suspicion and intolerance still offer contemporary relevance nearly a century after the novel's setting." Reviewing the novel for Library Journal, Barbara Hoffert also commended The Air We Breathe, terming it a "deft and quietly wrenching tale of human misunderstanding," while Entertainment Weekly contributor Allyssa Lee concluded: "Barrett eloquently blends scientific elements like TB and chemistry with her diverse characters' hopes and heartbreaks to bring the book to crackling life."
The Economist reviewer, recalling that Barrett had initially set out in life for a career as a scientist, noted: "Biology's loss was literature's gain." Still, Barrett has carried a scientist's curiosity and rigor of investigation into her art. In an interview Barrett conducted with the eminent paleontologist Niles Eldredge for Seed magazine, she drew an analogy between the work of the novelist and the scientist: "Maybe making a good fiction is not very different from constructing a good theory and then testing it. We test it in the same way—through the endless process of revision. We're making a theory about character in action. We're making a theory about human beings in the world and how we behave.
Then we start to fumble through our net of words and make a narrative, and then always we come to a place where the test proves us wrong. And then we revise, and then we go back and we re-test and then we re-revise. The actual details lead us against the grain of our preconceptions and to something that feels like truth." Barrett further noted: "What you find out about the natural world—the data—you bring back and keep testing against your predictions. It turns out to either falsify your theory or tell you that you're going down the right path. That's what writing a novel is like if you're doing it well."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, February 1, 2002, review of Servants of the Map, p. 106; November 1, 2007, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 154.
Belles Lettres, winter, 1993/94, Bettina Berch, review of The Forms of Water, p. 50.
Book, January 1, 2002, Don McLeese, review of Servants of the Map.
Booklist, January 1, 1996, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 785; September 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 197; November 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Servants of the Map, p. 523; December 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of The Story behind the Story: 26 Writers and How They Work, p. 720; August 1, 2007, Keir Graff, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 8.
Boston Globe, October 2, 2007, David Mehegan, "Breathing Lessons."
Economist, February 9, 2002, review of Servants of the Map.
Entertainment Weekly, November 29, 1996, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 82; October 9, 1998, Megan Harlan, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 78; October 5, 2007, Allyssa Lee, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 74.
Gentlemen's Quarterly, September, 1998, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 157.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2001, review of Servants of the Map, p. 1500; September 1, 2007, review of The Air We Breathe.
Kliatt, July 1, 2003, review of Servants of the Map, p. 6.
Library Journal, October 1, 1988, review of Lucid Stars, p. 99; September 15, 1989, review of Secret Harmonies, p. 134; February 1, 1991, Kimberly G. Allen, review of The Middle Kingdom, p. 101; May 15, 1993, review of The Forms of Water, p. 95; September 1, 1998, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 212; November 15, 2001, Starr E. Smith, review of Servants of the Map, p. 99; August 1, 2007, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 62.
Nation, January 29, 1996, Molly E. Rauch, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 32.
New Yorker, March 25, 1996, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 91; October 22, 2007, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 75.
New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1989, James Marcus, review of Lucid Stars, p. 30; June 23, 1991, Cheri Fein, review of The Middle Kingdom, p. 24; June 13, 1993, review of The Forms of Water, p. 20; January 28, 1996, Thomas Mallon, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 24; September 13, 1998, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 1; September 30, 2007, Kevin Baker, "Waiting to Exhale," review of The Air We Breathe, p. 18.
Ploughshares, September 22, 2007, "About Andrea Barrett: A Profile by Laura Van Den Berg," p. 207.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1988, review of Lucid Stars, p. 226; August 11, 1989, review of Secret Harmonies, p. 443; January 18, 1991, review of The Middle Kingdom, p. 45; April 26, 1993, review of The Forms of Water, p. 57; December 4, 1995, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 54; June 15, 1998, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 41; August 10, 1998, Samuel Baker, "Andrea Barrett: Images of Science Past," p. 363; December 24, 2001, review of Servants of the Map, p. 38; August 6, 2007, review of The Air We Breathe, p. 165; August 13, 2007, "PW Talks with Andrea Barrett: Love in a Time of Tuberculosis," p. 42.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), October 26, 2007, Jenny Camp, review of The Air We Breathe.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 24, 2007, Margot Kaminski, review of The Air We Breathe.
Science, November 29, 1996, Katherine Livingston, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 1478.
Seattle Times, October 19, 2007, Michael Upchurch, review of The Air We Breathe.
Telegraph (London, England), March 15, 2008, Lionel Shriver, review of The Air We Breathe.
Time, October 19, 1998, John Skow, review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, p. 114.
Washington Post Book World, February 11, 1996, review of Ship Fever, and Other Stories, p. 8.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (July 2, 2008), Robert Weibezahl, review of The Air We Breathe.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (July 2, 2008), Norah Piehl, review of The Air We Breathe.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (July 2, 2008), Luan Gaines, interview with Andrea Barrett, review of The Air We Breathe.
David Higham Associates Web site,http://www.davidhigham.co.uk/ (July 2, 2008), "Andrea Barrett."
Identitytheory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (July 2, 2008), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Andrea Barrett.
Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (November 4, 2007), Poornima Apte, review of The Air We Breathe.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (December 2, 1998), Peter Kurth, "The Salon Interview: Andrea Barrett."
Seed,http://seedmagazine.com/ (July 27, 2006), Andrea Barrett, interview with Niles Eldredge.