by Andrea Barrett
I first read this book in June 2006. I suggested it to my f2f book club because we've never read a collection of short stories. So Tues. evening I will be presenting this book - telling a little about the author, mentioning other books she's written, and leading the discussion of this book. In preparing for this, I've reread all the stories. If anything, I enjoyed them even more the second time around. But I am afraid. If you may remember this is the same book group in which every person hated The History of Love and many hated The Poisonwood Bible - both books I'd recommended.
Science functions as both the subject matter and metaphor in these tales. That's the reason for my fears. With History of Love the group told me they didn't have time to ponder the symbolism; that they wanted to read for pure enjoyment. That's the main reason I read, too, but I think a book we are reading to discuss should have some substance to it, something to sink our teeth into.
Most of the stories are straightforward and enjoyable to read. The fact that they engage the mind is an added benefit. Publisher's Weekly reports, "The quantifiable truths of science intersect with the less easily measured precincts of the heart in these eight seductively stylish tales." Barrett's characters are usually fictional, but they have touched shoulders with people we recognize, such as Mendel, Linneaus, Alfred Wallace; and several we may not know, such as the Canadian doctor who directed the horrendous task of caring for Irish immigrants on Grosse Isle during the typhus epidemic of 1847.
Many of the characters try to prove themselves in both science and love, but are often thwarted by gender, social position, or prevailing order. The stories are engaging and interesting. Some of the best historical fiction I've read and even though one of the themes is science, it's not necessary to have a science background to enjoy them. I plan on reading this book again - it is that good.