Ship Fever: Stories

by Andrea Barrett

Paperback, 1996

Call number




W. W. Norton & Company (1996), 256 pages


The elegant short fictions gathered hereabout the love of science and the science of love are often set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century. Interweaving historical and fictional characters, they encompass both past and present as they negotiate the complex territory of ambition, failure, achievement, and shattered dreams. In "Ship Fever," the title novella, a young Canadian doctor finds himself at the center of one of history's most tragic epidemics. In "The English Pupil," Linnaeus, in old age, watches as the world he organized within his head slowly drifts beyond his reach. And in "The Littoral Zone," two marine biologists wonder whether their life-altering affair finally was worth it. In the tradition of Alice Munro and William Trevor, these exquisitely rendered fictions encompass whole lives in a brief space. As they move between interior and exterior journeys, "science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange and thrilling fictional material" (Boston Globe).… (more)

Media reviews

A dark chill permeates the stories of Ship Fever, including those that take place in summer or in the tropics. It’s a seductive, bracing chill, one I’ll take over volumes of lush and sultry.
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Ms. Barrett's narrative laboratory is stocked with a handsome array of equipment. She tells her stories through alternating voices, diaries, letters -- whatever seems to hint at the most promising results. Seen against a larger fictional landscape overpopulated with the sensational and affectless,
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her work stands out for its sheer intelligence, its painstaking attempt to discern and describe the world's configuration. The overall effect is quietly dazzling, like looking at handmade paper under a microscope.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Ship Fever is a collection of stories (although the titular story is more of a novella) that revolve around science, particularly science in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the way that the scientific worldview affects the lives of the people who practice it, and the
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people who come afterward.

"The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" is a story of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and how his disillusionment with science is mirrored by the growing alienation between a professor and his wife. I thought this was an excellent opening story that set the tone for the entire volume quite well: they're stories about science, but they're not about science so much as the people doing to the science, and how that science can echo through time, and affect - or reflect - the lives of the people it touches.

"The English Pupil" focuses on the dying days of Carl Linnaeus, as he reflects over all of the eager young naturalists who died pursuing the passion that he instilled in them. This story was very sad, but also very interesting - I don't think I'd ever learned about Linnaeus's students, or what happened to them - but it's no wonder that Barrett chose them as the subject of a story. Full of pathos, and very, very human.

"The Littoral Zone" is a story of memory and relationships and reconstruction, as a married couple think about the events that took them away from their first marriages and brought them together. It's a story about the tiny threads of regret and sadness that linger even in what we would call a happy life, and the overall tone is almost melancholy. I did love that it was set at the same marine field station where I spent a summer during college, though.

"Rare Bird" is a story of a young woman in the 1760s, interested in science and natural history but kept from their pursuit by her gender. This was easily my favorite story, most likely because I had the easiest time identifying with the protagonist, and of all of the stories, it was the only one that I thought leaned more towards hope than bleakness.

"Soroche" involves a woman cast adrift within a family that doesn't belong to her, and contrasts her lot with Jemmy Button, one of the native Fuegians who was aboard the Beagle with Darwin. As a story, or a character study, this one was excellently crafted and very intriguing. However, I felt like it had to stretch to draw the historical parallels, and so the message of the story wound up feeling more labored than it needed to be.

"Birds with No Feet" is the story of a young naturalist/collector who was working in the Malay Archipelago at the same time as Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection contemporaneously with Darwin. I liked this story quite a bit, mostly for the glances it gave us of Wallace, who is a fascinating figure, and has been largely - and unfairly - eclipsed by Darwin in the history of science.

"The Marburg Sisters" tells the tale of two estranged sisters returning home to care for their dying father. It's the only story that doesn't particularly involve the history of science, and therefore felt a bit out of place. It was also my least favorite; I didn't particularly care for either Rose or Bianca, and the inconsistent use of the first-person plural bugged me.

"Ship Fever" is set during the typhus epidemic in Canada following the influx of Irish immigrants during the Great Potato Famine. A young and idealistic doctor is called to help at the quarantine station, only to find conditions worse than he expected and deteriorating rapidly, with no guarantee that help is coming, or that the city he calls home will remain unaffected. Harrowing and thoroughly engrossing.

Overall Review and Recommendation: This is the first of Barrett's work I've read, but it won't be the last. Her prose is lovely, striking just the right balance between economy and sparseness, and oftentimes cutting to the bone with a single well-crafted phrase. Her characterization, even in the limited space of a short story, is rich and complex, and she's capable of evoking a surprising amount of emotion in the same short period.

This book probably requires a certain mood to really enjoy - the tone of most of the stories is certainly stark, if not outrightly bleak, and by the time I finished it, I felt like I'd made several passes through the emotional wringer. Still, each of the stories, even the short ones, had a certain heft, a certain gravity to it, and in sum, they added up to a thoroughly compelling read. 4 out of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
Barrett does not disappoint in this collection of short stories. My favorite was the title story which was actually a novella and told the story of Dr. Lauchlin Grant and the Irish emigrants forced to stay at an island outside of Montreal because they are sick with typhus. Because of the conditions
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on the ship (wretched) it is called "ship fever." Dr. Grant's relationship with his best friend's wife, Suzannah, and an impoverished Irish girl that he saves, provide the human story here and, as with all Barrett's work, the science is a main character. Throughout the stories, reference is made to characters from Barrett's other books and it was interesting to make the connections. Great read!
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LibraryThing member trinityM82
Her characters are realistic. She deals with the sadness of real life - how things don't work out and how real people deal with it - growing old and dying but losing your memory first, giving up a marriage for a love you don't understand and regretting it, sisters and the connection between them,
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and the struggle to become what you were suppose to be. They are well developed - good examples of what a short story should be
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LibraryThing member JBD1
I'm not usually a fan of short stories (unless they're by Poe, or Twain). Barrett's, however, are fantastic. Richly detailed and magnificently crafted, each stands well on its own; and as a collection, they're better.
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Barrett, Andrea. Ship Fever. W. W. Norton Company, New York, 1996. A fun collection of stories. I particularly enjoyed them because science figures closely in all of them, without any of them being science fiction. My particular favorite is "The English Pupil." "Rare Bird" is also strong. I didn't
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particularly care for "The Marburg Sisters." The title story, "Ship Fever," is a good novella; alas, I read it so long ago (I've been slack in writing this entry) that I don't remember many of the details of the story. I remember being disappointed by the ending, but that might be simply because the title character dies, and fundamentally I like Hollywood-style endings
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LibraryThing member jlelliott
Meeting one of the legends of science in a short story is such a pleasure. Some of the stories in this collection feature such encounters, while others tell the tales of unknown scientists and clinicians. They are beautiful fusions of art and science, stories about the human beings behind the
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practice. As a lover of both science and literature, I felt like these stories were written just for me.
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LibraryThing member majorbabs
Barrett is a master at telling a story through the use of natural science, and I go back to reread this book again and again because she's such a good writer.
LibraryThing member danawl
A collection of short stories in the category of historical fiction and dealing with famous people and/or incidents in science and natural history.
LibraryThing member satyridae
Brilliant. Understated, disturbing and very well-written. The stories are infused with science and scientific theories but it's the characters who linger after the book is closed. Highly recommended, and many thanks to Susann for leaving this on my to-read pile.
LibraryThing member Paulagraph
Barrett shines at the novel & the longer story. These briefer for the most part stories don't offer the same satisfaction as those of Servants of the Map or Voyage of the Narwhal. The title story is the best of the lot.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
I'm not quite sure how this won the National Book Award. While some of the stories, with their fluid grace of prose, were appealing-- most of them were stop and start endeavors. Additionally, the stories did not seemed resolved at their end and it seemed like musings and considerations on the
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nature of scientific breakthroughs, their implications, and those surroundings it rather than good content material. This may have been the intent, but this was a miss for me.

2 stars.
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
The first story in this collection, 'The Behavior of the Hawkweeds', was in Best American Short Stories, where I read it and immediately sought out more by Andrea Barrett. I wasn't disappointed with this book.

In 'Rare Bird', it's 1762 and we meet Sarah Anne, "who inherited her father's brains but
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Christopher [her brother] inherited everything else". She's intelligent, single, interested in science and learning but held back by being a woman. She does find ways to write and to experiment, and does manage to change her situation in an interesting way.

The novella that gives this book its title is a story of the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. It seems to end well for a few people who make their way to Canada, but I did not read every part of it.
My favorite was 'The Marburg Sisters', about Rose and Bianca, and is in turns realistic, surreal, and philosophical as they grow to adulthood, go their separate ways, meet again in mid-twentieth century America, then once more part, but remain still connected.

Barrett writes with a sure hand, giving us fiction that is easy to believe is all truth.
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