* 1/2 stars. Set during World War I, this story takes place in Tamarack Lake, a fictionalized version of Saranac Lake, New York, where tuberculosis victims convalesce in varying degrees of privacy and comfort. One of these sufferers, a cement plant owner named Miles Fairchild, takes it upon himself to start a weekly discussion group ? or more accurately, a weekly series of self-improvement lectures ? at a state sanitarium for indigent TB patients. Miles sees this as a chance to indulge himself, both in lecturing the inmates on his particular obsession, the retrieval of dinosaur fossils, and in courting his driver, Naomi Martin, 18-year-old daughter of his landlady at a local boardinghouse. He gets much more than he bargained for. The weekly meetings liberate the spirits of the inmates, who are being smothered by the strict regimen of the sanitarium. He also sets in motion a fateful love quadrangle involving Miles, Naomi and Leo Marburg, an immigrant from Russia (with whom Naomi becomes completely infatuated) who only has eyes for Naomi's close friend Eudora MacEachern, a ward maid at the sanitarium. The son of Miles?s best friend, a teenage boy whom Miles loved with a devotion that may or may not have been wholly platonic, is killed on the Western Front. The young man?s death turns the factory owner into a "patriotic" autocrat as the United States enters the war. He becomes a local leader of the American Protective League, a prejudiced organization that took advantage of the war to persecute labor unions, immigrants and other so-called subversives. Meanwhile, Leo agrees to hold onto a box for a friend ? a box that contains incendiary devices and a stack of radical literature. Eudora and Leo are first drawn to each other by their interest in the sanitarium?s radiography equipment. Miles is further embittered when a ship full of the fossils is torpedoed by a U-boat. Their smoldering passions and jealousies are soon ignited, literally. ***** Ms. Barrett writes very well, but seems to be more interested in impressing the reader with esoteric information than telling an engaging story. At every turn, she feeds the reader historical and scientific information by repeatedly having her characters discuss the newspaper headlines and by the device of the lectures, which enable an amazingly erudite "indigent" collection of sanitarium inmates impart their wisdom on such varied topics as experiments in communal living, socialism, poison gas, the science of cinematography and Einstein?s theory of relativity. In addition, the behavior of the main characters often seems extremely questionable. Would Naomi, a rather cruel young woman who desperately wants to escape from Tamarack Lake, really fall for a penniless TB patient rather than, say, Eudora?s brother, who has a good job in New York and invites her to visit him there? Would Leo, depicted as constantly kind and thoughtful, really keep a box containing dangerous incendiary devices in an unsecured locker in a hospital full of invalids? Little time is given to the implications of tuberculosis and the fear it would engender. Why even place the novel in a sanatorium if the hopes and fears of the patients are not of prime importance. The denouement is telegraphed from very early in the narrative. I cannot recommend this book. It seems to be a waste of talent by this National Book Award winning author.
I liked it. Not a "fast" read but with interesting characters that flesh out over the course of the book.
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