Our Town Books Reviews: Archangel

ArchangelArchangel
By Andrea Barrett.
238 pp. W.W. Norton. $24.95.

I am a great admirer of Barbara Kingsolver, so when she wrote a glowing review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, I read the book immediately with no hesitation. I wish I’d hesitated. Barbara Kingsolver was, for once, wrong.

Gilbert’s overwrought book about a woman botanist discovering a theory similar to and parallel with Darwin’s was disappointing. I didn’t need to have her describe moss as green and fuzzy-looking. I already knew that. What I really wanted to know from Gilbert was what her nineteenth century woman botanist actually saw when she peered at the moss through her microscope. A little science, please.
After hearing me complain about Gilbert, a friend recommended Andrea Barrett’s latest book, Archangel. Somehow I’d missed Andrea Barrett when she won the National Book Award for fiction in 1996 and again when she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003—but I’m pleased to have discovered her now.

Archangel is a collection of five interconnected novellas based on scientific controversies raging near the turn of the 20th century, including evolution, genetics, and relativity. Barrett understands science. She explores human relationships, and she writes dazzling prose.

I knew I was in good hands when I read this sentence describing an astronomer sitting in her parents’ garden one evening, yearning to be part of the stormy debates over Einstein’s theory of relativity in London:
“The sound of her father’s viola waved down from the top of the house, bits of Bach easing through the old glass in the attic windows, spreading from her mother’s garden, where in June the peonies flourished as if fertilized by the sound, through the tiny backyard to the neighbors on all sides.”

Strong prose and a chance to actually peer through a microscope with a scientist in 1920 would be enough to keep me happy, but there’s more. The characters interact with and refer to historical figures. Well into the book, I was peacefully reading along when I came across this sentence, “…he laughed and said genetics was a young man’s game—Alfred Sturtevant had been only nineteen, still an undergraduate, when he devised the first chromosome map.”

I was brought up short by that. Sturtevant? Did I just read Sturtevant?

I looked it up. Yes. I was reading a reference to Jacksonville’s Alfred Sturtevant, an award-winning geneticist, born right here in town and the grandson of the founder of Illinois College.

Just another reason to like this book.

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