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Tuesday
Sep082009

1996

Ship Fever and Other Stories

By Andrea Barrett

Original and Current Publisher:
W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc.

Julia Glass writes:

In the mid-1990s, I was freelancing in the copy department of Cosmopolitan magazine. It was still the fiefdom of Helen Gurley Brown and, no coincidence, still published fiction. If you wanted free books, an ample and diverse collection rotated constantly through the foyer of the ladies’ room (hard luck for the few male employees who might have enjoyed this perk). In a cushioned pink alcove—the fainting couch—lay jumbles of discarded books and galleys, many by distinguished authors whose publishers hoped to place an excerpt in the magazine. If you were vigilant, you might well nab a copy of the next John Updike, Lorrie Moore, or Jane Smiley, not to mention countless guides to thinner thighs, better jobs, richer men.

It was on the fainting couch that I noticed a bound galley called Ship Fever and Other Stories, by Andrea Barrett. I’d never heard of the author, but I was attracted to the cryptic, antiquated image on its jacket: a scratchboard scene of sailing vessels, a darkened seaside village, tiny figures reclining on the shore. (I’d have tossed the book aside had I known that the illustration depicts a quarantine encampment for victims of the 1847 typhus epidemic that struck down thousands of emigrants fleeing the Irish potato famine. This is the setting for the astonishing, agonizing, and surprisingly romantic novella that gives the book its title.) 

At the time, I was inhaling one story collection after another as I tried, largely in vain, to get my own stories published. Into my readerly paradise of Munro, Cheever, Dubus, Lombreglia, O’Brien (the list hurtles on), in walked this Andrea Barrett. From the first sentence of the first story, “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” I was a goner: “For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel’s famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas.” She had me at Gregor Mendel.

Not until college, when I took a geology course merely to fulfill a requirement, did I understand what it’s like to fall in love with science. Briefly, I fell hard. It seemed beyond extraordinary to actually know why rivers meander, why hurricanes spin and volcanoes erupt, why shorelines are rocky or smooth, why the continents are shaped as they are; to know, basically, why the world. That kind of knowledge just blew my artsy mind. To be able to think in the time frame of a geologist, years counted in those Carl Sagany “billions and billions,” seemed to me far more poetic than being a poet. I felt a looming remorse: Had I, in wedding myself to the arts, chosen the wrong spouse? But I was buffeted by the kaleidoscopic passions of any pampered 20-year-old, and I got over that crush.

I was nearly twice that age when the stories in Ship Fever rekindled it. Science—its beauty, its cruelties, its never-diminishing mirages and mysteries—is the map to Andrea Barrett’s cosmos. Many of her characters are men and women impassioned or hypnotized by the minutiae of finding and naming new species, deciphering animal behavior, understanding the ocean, or curing grave illness. Each lives a life that becomes a kind of Möbius strip. What they “do” and who they “are” become one and the same, their ambitions fatefully bound up with their emotions. Not that Barrett always writes about scientists, but her characters’ stories take place in that paradoxical zone where the laws of nature defy the vanity that makes us human: the illusion that we exist above those laws, that an individual life stands apart from its physiognomy. We fool ourselves into believing that love is separate from DNA, intellect a purely abstract domain, and willpower invulnerable to the chemistry governing cells, organs, and bodies.

Do I make these stories sound clinical? They’re not. Just as easily and honestly, I could praise them as stories about family relationships (my favorite kind), the byzantine ties among spouses, siblings, parents, children. “The Littoral Zone” is about a marriage forged from an affair. “The English Pupil” portrays the great taxonomist Linnaeus in the mental fog of his final days, beset by dark memories about his many disciples yet grandiose as ever, willing order into the life he has left. (The world is “an alphabet written in God’s hand, which he, Carl Linnaeus, had been called to decipher.”) In “Rare Bird,” set in the 1760s, a bright young woman faces impending spinsterhood when her brother becomes engaged. “Ship Fever” is about the desperate lengths to which a man will be driven by unrequited love.

When writers get divided up by genre, among those often proud to be labeled are “southern writers.” They share an idiosyncratic sense of place, even a confraternity. A few years ago it occurred to me, a hopelessly dyed-in-the-polar-fleece Yankee, that no one speaks of “northern writers.” I came to this realization because I began to notice that certain authors I cherish write so evocatively about cold places and the way they influence the people who choose to live or venture there. Hawthorne and Hardy, Alice Munro, Jim Harrison, Alistair McLeod, Vendela Vida—add to the list Andrea Barrett. Even her Chile is snowbound.

A dark chill permeates the stories of Ship Fever, including those that take place in summer or in the tropics. It’s a seductive, bracing chill, one I’ll take over volumes of lush and sultry. In “The Marburg Sisters,” a family builds its fortune on wines made from hardy Russian and German grapes in the Fingers Lakes region of New York, in vineyards where “the cold air slipping down from the hills hung white and even below the trellises.” Andrea Barrett’s stories are like those wines: their exquisitely memorable flavors depend not just on sun and soil but on a killing frost.

Julia Glass was a National Book Award Winner in Fiction in 2002 for her novel Three Junes. She is also the author of the novel The Whole World Over and of I See You Everywhere, a novel in stories.


ISBN: 9780393316001

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Ron Hansen for Atticus
  • Elizabeth McCracken for The Giant's House
  • Steven Millhauser for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
  • Janet Peery for The River Beyond the World

Fiction Judges that Year:

Kathryn Harrison, Amy Bloom, Benjamin Cheever, Elizabeth Spencer, David Bradley

The Year in Literature:  

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • Andrea Barrett received her B.A. in biology from Union College and briefly attended a Ph.D. program in zoology.
  • She began seriously writing fiction in her thirties, publishing four novels before she wrote Ship Fever, but it was that short story collection that really put her on the literary map.
  • A later book, Servants of the Map, was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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