Monday, December 27, 2010

Servants of the Map

Andrea Barrett's stories about passion and desire, longing and frustration are stirring at times, almost unbearably poignant at others, and always compelling. They are about people driven by curiosity, the need to discover and understand nature. They are scientists, mostly, trained or amateur, or, in "The Cure", healers and caregivers.

The title story is the most austere, told in part in the letters of Max Vigne to his wife, Clara. He cannot own up to her his fascination for the pursuit of plant life above the tree line in the mountains he is surveying, his willingness to forgo the comforts of hearth and home, his rejection, in effect, of her and their children. He is clearly an emotionally stunted man but possessed of his own incipient passion, which he is able to finally recognize in the isolation of the Himalayas.

The next stories are each enchanting in their own way. "The Forest" tells of an encounter between an aging Polish scientist and a young, failed science student, who nonetheless bond through their love of the forest. Both characters wrestle with the expectations put upon them -- the one an accomplished scientist ignored by a hostess too wrapped up in her own little world, the other a young woman who chooses not to follow her sister's path. A quiet drink (of bison-grass vodka!), an interlude in the woods amidst the deer with the old man extracting what pleasure he can from this glancing acquaintance with a young woman who sees him as -- an old man.

The heart of the book comes, though, in the two related stories, "Theories of the Rain," and "Two Rivers." They are the stories of two siblings separated at a young age (two and five) but who retain an abiding attachment to each other. Lavinia, who describes herself at one point as nothing but appetite, is consumed by passionate longings that remain unfulfilled, even as she chooses the rational path of a suitable marriage. Even more telling is the story of her brother, Caleb, who loses the love of his life, but gets a second chance at marriage and devotion to a cause -- educating the deaf -- that gives him a fulfilling life.

It is in the novella-length "Two Rivers" that Barrett demonstrates the full range of her virtuosity as a writer, shifting points of view, creating characters in a few sketches who possess an astonishing range of emotion, giving us in these characters -- Samuel, Caleb, Stuart, Miriam, Grace, and the absent Lavinia -- a generational saga, all in 50 pages.

"The Mysteries of Ubiquitin" tells the story of a young girl whose infatuation with her parents' entomologist friend leads to a career in biochemistry and ultimately, if improbably, a romantic interlude with this older man when she is a young woman. The Polish scientist may have been better off keeping his romance in the realm of fantasy. This story, more explicitly than the others, suggests that the passion driving scientists is a profoundly erotic one.

"The Cure" is an ambitious tale, the longest in the book, that reunites Max Vigne's wife and daughters with characters that, apparently, appear in Barrett's earlier novels, Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal. While Barrett is fond of these connections, it was for me in this story not particularly enlightening, since I haven't read these other books. It was almost disappointing, in fact, to learn the after-story of Max Vigne's decision to pursue a career as a botanist. The depiction of the Adirondacks and the ravages of tuberculosis, with all its echoes of The Magic Mountain, made for an entertaining story nonetheless.

I ordered this book because of my research into MacArthur grant authors and because I like maps. I'm curious now to see whether Barrett can maintain this wonderful balance between her elegant prose and her probing of the nature of passion through an entire novel. Watch this space.

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