- Andrea Barrett
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- September 11, 2013
The triumph of discovery and the sense of loss that scientific progress can bring are explored in this new collection of short stories.
The five stories composing Andrea Barrett’s stunning new collection, Archangel, are set in different periods of scientific breakthrough. In a previous collection, Ship Fever, for which she won the National Book Award, Barrett wrote about the wonders of science. But these stories are considerably longer and go further, often focusing on the clash between scientific discoveries and old worldviews, as well as the tensions between colleagues and their protégées. An epigraph from the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson explains her concept perfectly: “We cannot part with our friends. We cannot let our angels go. We do not see that they only go out that archangels may come in. We are idolaters of the old.”
Barrett’s characters devote their lives to scientific research. They are methodical, thoughtful and hard working. But new findings stand to undermine their efforts. This, Barrett seems to suggest, is intrinsic to the scientific process, and although it is often painful, a rich sense of inner life, as well as connectedness, prevails.
The cross-pollination between her stories underscores the point. In the first story, “The Investigators,” we meet Constantine Boyd, who during the summer of 1908 works on his uncle’s farm in Hammondsport, N.Y., and witnesses the flight of the biplane June Bug. We encounter him again in the final story, “Archangel,” set in northern Russia, where he meets Eudora MacEachern, an X-ray technician. Readers may remember Eudora from Barrett’s 2007 novel, The Air We Breathe.
Barrett also gives us a legacy passed from one scientist to another. Phoebe Wells Cornelius, the protagonist in “The Ether of Space,” is the mother of Sam Cornelius, the protagonist in “The Particles.” His mentor Axel reminds Sam of his scientific pedigree, from teacher to student, which goes back to the naturalist Louis Agassiz. Then Agassiz crops up again in “The Island,” where he is the hero of protagonist Henrietta Atkins.
Many stories concern the human yearning to see a divine hand in the natural order of the world — and the painful difficulty of relinquishing this notion. “The Ether of Space” is set in 1920. Here a young widow, Phoebe Wells Cornelius, attends a lecture by Sir Oliver Lodge, who notwithstanding Einstein’s theory of relativity, hypothesizes that the ether is a universal link between different states of consciousness. Phoebe is a scientist, torn between the findings in her own work and the sentiments in Lodge’s lecture. In spite of herself, she longs to feel that her dead husband is somewhere in the ether “hovering, just out of sight, in some gaseous form.”
Barrett explores a similar tension between the science we once believed and new advances that overthrow them in “The Island.” Professor Louis Agassiz explains that “Nature is the work of thought,” and that in studying natural objects, “we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading his conceptions, interpreting a system that is his and not ours.” Agassiz concedes that Darwin is “an important British naturalist,” but thinks it’s a shame that he has thrown away his standing “to chase such a wrongheaded theory” as the theory of evolution.
Meanwhile, his protégé Henrietta Atkins comes to think differently. Attending his course on Penikese Island, she befriends another student, who lends her Darwin’s books. Henrietta struggles with her realization that evolution has nothing to do with divine plan. On a particular expedition, as students row through a shoal of jellyfish, she thrusts her hand into the water and is badly stung. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the initial effect of her struggle to assimilate Darwin’s theory. It is very painful, but the pain isn’t lasting.
But my favorite story in the collection is “The Particles,” set in 1939 at the beginning of World War II. Geneticist Sam Cornelius escapes from a torpedoed British ship and is picked up by another vessel on which he confronts a rival who is also a fellow student of his mentor. Before the war interrupted their lives, they had participated at a scientific conference in Edinburgh (all based, by the way, on historical events). Like his mother Phoebe, from “The Ether of Space,” Sam feels underappreciated and misconstrued. His rival has publically attacked Sam’s presentation in Edinburgh. The story explores the relationship between student and mentor and “what happens when the passion required to define a new set of ideals went too far” against the backdrop of war. Barrett deftly slows down to describe scenes of chaos on board the ship. When she picks up the pace, breaking conventional “show, don’t tell” rules, the story works brilliantly, because Barrett plucks out the clean narrative thread of Sam’s inner life. The deeper, private concerns here are not so much about physical survival as they are about emotional and professional survival.
At the end of this story, as at the end of “The Island” and “The Investigators,” I experienced something rather like Henrietta with her jellyfish sting: almost a physical sensation at having been stunned. It was the emotional impact of a masterfully resonant story. Barrett’s insights into the legacy of serious work are highly intelligent and profoundly moving. She implies that although good work may sometimes be misguided in its conclusions, dashed hopes are never entirely futile. The high-minded must often relinquish the superficial accolades of personal credit. And however well done, work along the path of scientific progress is often overthrown. It is an honorable and paradoxical legacy.
Archangel is a brilliant collection. Nobody but Andrea Barrett could have written these stories, and they are her finest yet.
Amanda Holmes Duffy is a fiction writer whose stories have recently appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Our Stories and Main Street Rag. She blogs at www.irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com.