Andrea Barrett 1965-
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Barrett's career through 2000.
Barrett is well regarded for her novels and short fiction that focus on the complex dynamics of family and personal relationships. Her fiction often includes female characters who are struggling to find happiness despite formidable obstacles. Barrett has also shown a recurring interest in scientific topics and the impact of science on the lives of her characters. She is best known for The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) and her short story collection Ship Fever and Other Stories (1996), which received a National Book Award.
Barrett was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1965, to Walter Barrett and Jacquelyn Knifong. She grew up largely on Cape Cod, and her childhood there instilled in her an interest in ocean exploration, marine biology, and natural history. In 1985, she received a B.S. in biology from Union College. Barrett also pursued graduate studies in zoology as well as medieval and Reformation theological history. Those areas of interest—science and history—have become dominant themes in her novels and short stories. In 1988, she published her first novel, Lucid Stars. She received a National Book Award in 1996 for her short fiction collection Ship Fever and Other Stories. A year later, Barrett was awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In October 2001, Barrett was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Barrett is an instructor in the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, and resides in Rochester, New York.
Barrett's first novel, Lucid Stars, recounts the tribulations of an American family, focusing primarily on a woman named Penny and her philandering husband. Penny eventually seeks a divorce and tries to focus on finding happiness in the study of astronomy and raising her children. Barrett's second novel, Secret Harmonies (1989), follows another woman's search for peace and fulfillment. The protagonist, Reba Dwyer, lives in rural Massachusetts with her meek, introspective brother, Hank, and her handicapped sister, Tonia. After a period of rebellion, Reba leaves her family and enters a conservatory for women. She eventually moves back home when she finds out that her father has abandoned the family. Several months later, Reba marries a longtime friend and is forced to examine her life, her marriage, and the elusive nature of personal contentment. In 1991, Barrett released The Middle Kingdom, a novel that traces the transformation of an unhappily married woman named Grace. After Grace accompanies her estranged husband to Beijing on a business trip, she falls ill with pneumonia. She slowly regains her health and her sense of independence, as she decides to remain in Beijing alone, eventually finding a job and lover. In 1993, Barrett published The Forms of Water, a multigenerational tale focusing on a dysfunctional family living in upstate New York. The story centers on an aging family patriarch, Brendon Auberon, who convinces his nephew, Henry, to steal a nursing-home vehicle and take him to the abbey where he had once lived as a monk. Brendon and Henry's journey alarms the other members of the family, who unite to find Brendon and return him to his nursing home. Ship Fever, a collection of Barrett's short fiction, appeared in 1996 and garnered considerable critical praise for the range of stories in the volume. As in Barrett's novels, several of the stories in Ship Fever deal with familial relationships. “The Marburg Sisters,” for example, is a tale of twin sisters, one of whom becomes a scientist while the other enters the world of drug addiction. Barrett returned to the novel form with the nineteenth-century drama The Voyage of the Narwhal, which follows Erasmus Darwin Wells, a young Philadelphian who signs up for a dangerous polar expedition led by a dashing but immature adventurer. The story focuses on the group's search for a team of explorers who went missing during their last voyage. Wells must come to terms with his role in the expedition and, after living through adventure and tragedy, readjust to his normal life back in Philadelphia.
Barrett has often been praised for bringing together the worlds of science and literature. Reviewers have commended her grasp of historical detail, focus on scientists and scientific concepts, and deft use of nineteenth-century settings. In particular, Barrett's short fiction has been noted for its ability to impart the excitement of scientific discovery to the reader. While reviewing Barrett's collection Ship Fever, Lisa Schwarzbaum noted that: “Each [story] is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author's fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists.” Barrett has been consistently complimented for her clear, lyrical prose and her engaging female characters. Her exploration of feminist themes, especially the issues facing female scientists, has been noted as one of the defining characteristics of Barrett's fiction. Some critics have regarded her work as slow paced and didactic, but many have applauded Barrett’s fiction for how it vividly explores complex relationships as well as the human endeavor to find peace and happiness in life.