Andrea Barrett chooses time out of mind for the setting of her latest novel, a tuberculosis cure facility in New York’s Tamarack Lake district of the Adirondacks. Exploring the effects of isolation on a community while World War I lurks on the horizon, the sanatorium becomes a microcosm of human behavior, class differences and immigrant issues circa 1916.
Her elegant prose as pristine as the rarified air the patients breathe, Barrett mines the experiences of individuals cast together in this remote place, where patients are instructed to heal the mind and the body, “no talking… no smoking, no laughing, no singing, no reading, no writing.”
Fleeing cities teeming with social unrest, the baleful conditions of immigrants seeking employment, a power struggle with organized unions and a country on the precipice of war, those with no means are gathered together in spare cottages with strict regulations. However, financially independent occupants, such as Miles Fairchild, are afforded every luxury: warm rooms, an abundance of books and personal attention.
Wrapped in his fine blankets, Fairchild conceives of a Wednesday salon where he can share his interest in paleontology with those who attend, hoping to inspire his listeners with the same passion he harbors for fossils. A decade older than most of the others, Miles assumes importance by nature of his age, personality and wealth, a scion of privilege who has left a successful factory behind while he recuperates. The weekly seminar develops its own identity, however, the patients stimulated by sharing experiences and dreams with one another.
The mostly European immigrants have few material goods but a common generosity of spirit, welcoming newcomer Leo Marburg to the fold in spite of his personal oddities - in particular an inclination to keep his own counsel. That same quality inspires Leo’s trustworthiness, making him a receptacle for the secrets of others.
The supporting characters participate in an evolving dynamic that is controlled for the most part by Fairchild. Leo’s continued presence at the salon is equally important, the quiet, curious young man the focus of attention of other attendees as well as the unsolicited affection of Naomi Martin, a young woman suffocating in her mother’s house and under Fairchild’s scrutiny, the elder gentleman coveting Naomi’s attentions.
Other than the easy conquest of a man of substance, Naomi has moved on, directing her amorous gaze toward Leo, who would much rather enjoy the company of Naomi’s friend, Eudora. Given the restricted social environment of the era, a lack of communication allows Naomi’s imagination to feed upon her romantic notions, a catalyst for tragedy that will affect all at Tamarack State, particularly Leo’s future.
Certain characters are pivotal: Dr. Petrie, who stands against injustice when no one else will; Irene, the radiologist, who brings Eudora and Leo together, encouraging both to study X-ray technology; and Naomi, whose selfish pursuit of Leo unleashes chaos with terrible consequences. Barrett brilliantly weaves the disparate characters together, the war ultimately intruding, poisoning even this sanctuary, privilege and power clashing with reality and an excess of patriotic fervor, sickness of the soul far more destructive than that of the body: “We’d contributed to destroying our own world.”