ARCHANGEL by Andrea Barrett

Book Quote:

“Why are we interested?” Taggart said. He smiled at his old teacher. “We’re both just curious about them— there’s a lot of discussion about how they evolved. Why do you think a cave-dwelling species might lose its eyes?”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (MAR 2, 2014)

Phoebe Cornelius, the protagonist of “The Ether of Space,” the second of the five long stories in this collection, makes a living explaining scientific concepts to laymen. This is Andrea Barrett’s forte also. Three of these stories are set in the wings of some great scientific discovery: Phoebe is trying to comprehend Einstein’s Relativity; her son Sam becomes a pioneer in the relatively new science of genetics; and an earlier story explores the impact of Darwinism on the younger generation of scientists in America. In all these cases, Barrett explains the underlying concepts with great clarity. Sometimes, though, the stories seem to be running on two tracks simultaneously, one scientific and the other personal; I don’t know that readers with little interest in science would get much out of the book on the personal level alone.

For some reason, Barrett seems to be drawn to scientists who are deluded or blind, rather than the great innovators. “The Island” is about the summer school set up on Penikese Island (the predecessor of the Woods Hole Institute) by the eminent American scientist Louis Agassiz, a celebrated critic of Darwinism. The grand old man in the background of Phoebe’s story is Sir Oliver Lodge, the great English physicist and radio pioneer who, late in life, made the double error of rejecting Einstein and embracing spiritualism. And Phoebe’s son Sam, although on to something important, invites ridicule by suggesting that some discredited Lamarckian notions might nonetheless coexist with Mendelism.

Barrett’s bookend stories are less tied to scientific theory. In the first, “The Investigators,” a Detroit teenager named Constantine Boyd, spends a summer at a research farm in upstate New York run by his uncle, and watches the early experiments with flying machines taking place in the adjoining valley. In the last, “Archangel,” Boyd reappears as one of the Polar Bear Expedition, that small contingent of American troops sent to Northwest Russia to fight against the Bolsheviks; the true protagonist of that story, however, is a young American woman working with early X-Ray equipment in a military hospital. I liked these two stories especially for their greater emphasis on historical action and human qualities. But despite their concern with scientific theory, the other stories share these qualities too. “The Particles,” the story about Sam Cornelius, begins in high drama with the sinking of the ATHENIA, the first British ship to be torpedoed in WW2. And Phoebe Cornelius, after all her tussles with the mathematics of Relativity, ends with an understanding of relativity in quite a different sense, in the embrace of her extended family, both living and dead.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 22 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition, edition (August 19, 2013)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Andrea Barrett
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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March 2, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Scifi, Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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