Andrea Barrett Barrett, Andrea - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lucid Stars (novel) 1988

Secret Harmonies (novel) 1989

The Middle Kingdom (novel) 1991

The Forms of Water (novel) 1993

Ship Fever and Other Stories (short stories) 1996

The Voyage of the Narwhal (novel) 1998

Nicholas Lezard (review date 11 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “First and Second Novels,” in Spectator, March 11, 1989, p. 42.

[In the following excerpt, Lezard compliments the dialogue and character development in Lucid Stars.]

Novelists, since Flaubert I suppose, have tried conscientiously to be as true to the Inner Experience of the characters they write about as possible, and one way of doing this is to put everything into the present tense. It makes it all so much more immediate. So: ‘she opens the fridge’ instead of ‘she opened the fridge.’ This is certainly intimate, but in the wrong hands it can feel like the intimacy of a crowded bus. Andrea Barrett, who is not Damon Runyon and has written Lucid Stars uses this gimmick with a vengeance. Her story, about a succession of relationships and the pseudo-familial obligations they create, takes place over 25 years, so the historic present can be said to Have A Point. Unfortunately, she finds the fixed, arbitrary patterns stars make (hence the book's title) more interesting than the historical resonances her narrative achieves, so the Point here is like, really, you know how everything changes and yet, er, everything stays the same, you know? My point is that Lucid Stars wouldn't be worth mentioning if it did not also contain beautifully recorded dialogue and enough nice touches to prove that, despite the sloppy thought behind the very idea of the book, the author does know what makes her characters tick.

Margaret Bradham (review date 12 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Familial Failings,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 1989, p. 518.

[In the following excerpt, Bradham commends the engaging style and layers of detail found in Lucid Stars.]

Andrea Barrett's Lucid Stars is about the ex-wives and children of a man whose indifference alienates them all. While the motif of stars verges on the excessive and cute, Barrett surpasses those of her predecessors who have written in a similar style about similarly fragmented families. Her style is clear and well paced; the finest achievement of the novel is the portrait of the two children from the first marriage, Cass, strong-willed and independent, and her younger brother Webb, sweet, simple and uncomplicated, and the deep-rooted tenderness and comfortable affection that exist between them. Her depiction of these two as they mature from small children into young adults, as they react to the same events—their mother's departure, their parents' divorce, their father's remarriage—and develop in different ways, is consistent and convincing. Where many have written novels thick with detail and thin on character development, Barrett, much to her credit, has reversed the emphases and has rejected the notion that if details are layered thickly enough, they can give us glimpses into the characters hearts.

Katherine A. Powers (review date 5 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Middle Kingdom, in Washington Post Book World, May 5, 1991, p. 11.

[In the following review, Powers offers a positive assessment of The Middle Kingdom.]

Andrea Barrett's third novel, The Middle Kingdom, is the story of Grace Doerring (formerly Hoffmeier, formerly Martone) who grew up fat with a propensity to grow fatter. Grace is familiar to us from both life and literature. Tormented by her mother, messed with by her grandfather, married to a self-absorbed, unhinged artist, then to a self-absorbed, uptight scientist, she has always been a prop in other people's lives. She's the girl who just came along for the ride. And she feeds her empty heart with sweet things.

Things go from bad to worse for Grace until she arrives in China for a scientific conference as “an accompanying person” to her husband. Walter, the “acknowledged leader of the acid-rain world.” At first she is overwhelmed by the strangeness of it. And then very quickly frustrated by the isolation imposed upon her by her status.

Her only role in the conference is to show up at banquets with Walter, from whom she is almost completely estranged. It is her lot and that of the other “accompanying persons” to be moved by bus from one sightseeing spot to another, from one shopping opportunity to another. They are allowed to speak only to each other and to their guide. They are fed sanitized food and sterilized drink.

Soon the vicariousness of her experience in this vibrant land becomes too much for one whose whole life has been lived so vicariously. Grace escapes. She is befriended by a Chinese woman scientist and through her makes her way into the world as it is really lived by the Chinese. And in the end Grace decides to stay.

Though she must eventually leave, she does not go as she came. She now has a child. And she has found the immediacy of life she lacked in her American existence.

In The Middle Kingdom Andrea Barrett does not, perhaps, cross new thresholds into the soul of women or the heart of China, but her novel is engaging. She writes with felicity, intelligence and humor.

Bettina Berch (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Forms of Water, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993, p. 50.

[In the following review, Berch offers a positive assessment of The Forms of Water.]

A well-structured novel, like a well-designed house, can be quite pleasurable no matter how it is furnished. Whether the subject matter of The Forms of Water—children without parents who later become childish parents, the ways families repeat themselves, the importance of home—is of interest to all readers or not, the book is crafted with such care, it can be appreciated on that level alone.

The Forms of Water is the story of a family that fell apart...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Pinckney Benedict (review date 7 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Collision of Dreams,” in Washington Post Book World, June 7, 1993, p. D2.

[In the following positive review, Benedict calls The Forms of Water an “elegiac” and “intelligent” novel.]

A certain appetite for land (an appetite remarkable for its fierce, even rapacious nature) is a major constituent of the American character. It's part of our national heritage. Historically, the United States has also provided safe haven for, and been the birthplace of, any number of utopian religions, from the Shakers to the Mormons to the Seventh-Day Adventists. These seemingly antithetical currents in American life flow powerfully together in The Forms of...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Chris Goodrich (review date 29 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Family Tug-of-War over a Plot of Land,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 29, 1993, p. E8.

[In the following review, Goodrich offers a mixed assessment of The Forms of Water.]

[In The Forms of Water] Henry Auberon has returned with his Uncle Brendan to Coreopsis Heights, the real-estate subdivision that proved to be his undoing.

Half-built houses, bulldozer slashes in the hillside, dried mud, aging lumber, even squatters: It's a grisly reminder of failure, but Henry sees, perhaps for the first time, that no amount of risk would have prevented him from developing the family land.

“Gone, he thought. All of...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Erin McGraw (essay date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nor Good Red Herring: Novellas and Stories,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 808–18.

[In the following excerpt, McGraw explores the unifying thematic material in Ship Fever.]

The stories and novella in Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever are bound by a clear thematic unity: all of the book's characters are, in some fashion, scientists, and in every tale science provides both the framework and a metaphor for the action. “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” centers on a genetics professor's wife, “Birds with No Feet” on a chronically unsuccessful collector of rare natural specimens in the nineteenth century, “Rare Bird” on an...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Samuel Baker (review date 10 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Images of Science Past,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 32, August 10, 1998, p. 363.

[In the following essay, Baker provides an overview of Barrett's life and work, as well as discussing her recent critical success.]

Rochester, N.Y., home to corporate headquarters for Eastman Kodak and for Xerox, styles itself “The World's Image Centre.” It is a city much concerned with capturing the past and, indeed, a city that finds the past palpable in the present. Along the expressways that divide the town, Kodak billboards beam the golden-yellow hue indelibly associated with that firm's brands, and the city seems to draw energy from the timeless trademark....

(The entire section is 2075 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 30 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sailing into Madness,” in Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1998, p. 3.

[In the following mixed review, Yardley admires the insight and intelligence of The Voyage of the Narwhal, but derides the novel as “didactic.”]

This sixth work of fiction [The Voyage of the Narwhal] by a recent winner of the National Book Award is an interesting but peculiar mixture of Darwin (The Voyage of the Beagle), Nordhoff and Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Wouk (The Caine Mutiny). Set in the mid-19th century, it is the story of a failed Arctic expedition and the reverberations it sets off in the lives not merely of those aboard the...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)

Philip Graham (review date 13 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Exploring Inner Landscapes,” in Chicago Tribune Books, September 13, 1998, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following positive review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, Graham praises Barrett's detailed historical research.]

As readers of her National Book Award-winning story collection Ship Fever know, Andrea Barrett has long been fascinated by the ironies of the scientific endeavor, how the quest for a clarity of vision is often distorted by the complications of human passion. In her powerful new novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett continues to examine, now on a grand scale, the myriad dangers of gathering knowledge of the world without at the...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)

Carol Anshaw (review date December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Winters of Discontent,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 3, December, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following review, Anshaw commends Barrett's scrupulous research and use of detail in The Voyage of the Narwhal.]

At first blush, The Voyage of the Narwhal might seem an odd book for consideration in The Women's Review, concerning itself as it does mainly with men—moreover, men in acutely manly postures, engaged in the rugged heroics and privations of Arctic exploration. But Andrea Barrett is up to quite a bit more than an adventure saga. Like an iceberg, the bulk of her story lies in the vast dark stillness beneath its surface. Ultimately, the...

(The entire section is 1469 words.)

Scott Martelle (review date 7 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Navigating a Sea of Adventure: Author Uses Contemporary Voice to Relate Novel's Tale of Arctic Explorers,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 7, 1998, p. E3.

[In the following review, Martelle explores the major thematic concerns of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal.]

As a child growing up on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, Andrea Barrett was mesmerized by the memoirs of 19th century arctic explorers, with their tales of adventurous sea voyages through ice-choked passages, disastrous shipwrecks and “wintering over” on the killing ice pack.

Time slowly eroded the details of those stories from her memory, though, as...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)

Margaret Walters (review date 5 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Name on the Map,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1999, p. 24.

[In the following review, Walters commends Barrett's convincing portrayal of the “intellectual universe of the mid-nineteenth-century naturalist” in The Voyage of the Narwhal.]

Erasmus Darwin Wells is the unlikely hero of Andrea Barrett's impressive new novel The Voyage of the Narwhal. Already middle-aged, he is diffident, prickly and introspective, and convinced, at least in his frequent moments of depression, that he is a failure. He lives quietly in his family home in Philadelphia, with plenty of money, but “no wife, no children, no truly close friends,” and no real...

(The entire section is 803 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 6 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Search for Sir John,” in Spectator, March 6, 1999, pp. 39–40.

[In the following review, Taylor offers a positive assessment of The Voyage of the Narwhal, calling the novel “half a boy's adventure story of the highest class, half a kind of meditation on the nature of human curiosity.”]

The hunt for John Franklin was one of the great early Victorian obsessions, inflaming public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to a mound of books and articles and bringing a raft of supplementary tragedies in its wake. Sir John, who had fought at Trafalgar as a 17-year-old, set out with his ships Erebus and Terror in search of...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Susan Balée (review date Spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Victorian Voyages and Other Mind Trips,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 167–72.

[In the following excerpt, Balée offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Voyage of the Narwhal.]

A fascination with all things Victorian continues in fiction as well as in film. Clearly, some aspect of nineteenth-century culture is intersecting with our twentieth-century Weltanschauung and we are drawn back to this particular past. I think one of the main points of connection concerns an obsessive quest for knowledge, no matter how dangerous. The intellectual imperialism that dominated Europe and America through much of the...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Derrek Hines (review date 10 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Missing the Boat,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following negative review, Hines notes that Barrett is a skilled writer, but faults the stories in Ship Fever for lacking emotional power and depth.]

In a recent interview, Andrea Barrett said she thought she had been born in the wrong century—that she would have been a better nineteenth-century naturalist than the biologist she was trained as; and certainly the omnivorous passions of the naturalist/collector inform and drive this collection of eight short stories Ship Fever which won this year's American National Book Award. In each tale, the characters'...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 9 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Grace under Pressure,” in Spectator, December 9, 2000, p. 44.

[In the following positive review, Taylor compliments Barrett's psychological insight in The Middle Kingdom.]

Although there is no information to this effect anywhere on its jacket, The Middle Kingdom is not a new book. First published as far back as 1991 in the USA, it follows close on the heels of The Voyage of the Narwhal (1999) and the short story collection Ship Fever—another reissue, as it turned out—which appeared at the very end of last year. The former propelled Miss Barrett if not into fiction's international premier league, then towards the upper end of its...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


op de Beeck, Nathalie. “Science, Nature and Regret.” Washington Post Book World (11 February 1996): 8.

Beeck praises the “experimental edge” and wide appeal of the stories in Ship Fever.

Bilgore, Ellen. “One Family's Symphony.” Washington Post Book World (26 September 1989): D3.

Bilgore compliments the rhythm of Barrett's prose and her thematic structure in Secret Harmonies.

Cole, Diane. “From Andrea Barrett, Another Kind of Science Fiction.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 February 1996): 7.

Cole offers a positive assessment of Ship Fever,...

(The entire section is 158 words.)