Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever

In Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever men and women with a passion for science try to escape the confines of their gender or social position to practice what they love, and while they’re not always successful in doing so, the insights they come by illuminate the arguably greater mysteries of the human heart.
In “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” a woman uses a letter written by Gregor Mendel about his experiments on peas and hawkweeds to woo a genetics professor, who in turns uses it to dazzle his students, but the story behind the letter often remains unappreciated, just as Mendel’s work was during his lifetime.
In “The Littoral Zone,” we witness a couple of scientists’ unexpected love affair while on a work retreat. Barrett is masterful in her exploration of the ways in which the couple seeks to justify leaving their families.

Nothing that was to come–not the days in court, nor the days they moved, nor the losses of jobs and homes–would ever seem so awful to them as that moment when they first saw their families standing there, unaware and hopeful. Deceitfully, treacherously, Ruby and Jonathan separated and walkled to the people awaiting them.

The collection consists of modern-day tales as well as stories about science in less enlightened times. In “Rare Bird,” set in Kent in 1762, a woman who is fascinated by aquatic anthropoids is rebuffed in her attempts to disprove a widely held theory about the “hibernation” of swallows.

Christopher is glaring at her. [Sarah Anne] knows what he’s thinking: in his new, middle-aged stodginess, assumed unnecessarily early and worn like a borrowed coat, he judges her harshly. She’s been forward in entering the conversation, unladylike in offering an opinion that contradicts some of her guests, indelicate in suggesting that she might pursue a flock of birds with a net.

Sarah Anne has much in common with the protagonist of “Birds With No Feet,” a naturalist who seems to be kept from making much of his finds around the world by his social station back home in pre-revolution America.
In nearly every story, Barrett weaves an impressive amount of scientific information, but the result is never forced or heavy or dull. She has a talent for mixing historical figures (Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus) with fictitious scientists, and making the result not only plausible but entirely engaging. Perhaps the only false note in this otherwise dazzling collection is “The Marburg Sisters,” in which the point of view (going from one sister to the other to ther first-person plural) felt a bit contrived.
Still, Barrett has produced a remarkable collection, full of intelligence and grace. Ship Fever is one of the best collections I’ve read in a while.