... a confident, quiet, richly imagined collection ... As a first-time Barrett reader myself, let me say that I felt entirely comfortable in the world of her fiction despite my belated entry. (A family tree in the endnotes helped get me oriented — and piqued my interest in the other books) ... Barrett is bold yet deft in handling timelines, lifetimes and points of view. Each individual story feels complete, even as the connections between them and my newfound awareness of her greater oeuvre reinforce the collection’s central conviction that there is no such thing in nature as self-containment; everything is part of something bigger than itself.
... an imaginative miracle woven of complexly connected stories ... that’s precisely the dizzying effect Ms. Barrett’s writing has on her readers, catapulting them into a zone where things real and imagined, history and literature, Charles Darwin and Henrietta Atkins may freely mingle ... marks a productive tightening of Ms. Barrett’s focus ... In Ms. Barrett’s world, ruled by unflappable women, nothing much happens and yet everything does. And there’s plenty of heartache and pain, too ... Immersing oneself in Natural History is an experience both bracing and magical. Characters, places and ideas merge in a dance that casts the helpful family tree provided at the end of the volume in about the same light as the famous diagram included in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—as an incomplete abstraction imposed on the flux of life. Ms. Barrett’s prose is by turns clinical, as when Henrietta expounds the structure of a butterfly’s wing, poetic and quietly sensual, and often all of that at the same time ... the blurring of distinctions, of past and present, reality and fiction, is enhanced by a narrative consciousness that doesn’t hover over the characters so much as live in between them, switching at will from one perspective to the next, allowing us to see the world through Henrietta’s eyes as well as look at her the way others do. Here Darwin, master of large collections of facts, meets Chekhov, subtle manager of multiple viewpoints. For what matters most is not that one finds the answers but that, like Henrietta Atkins, one keeps asking the right questions. Or, in the plain, powerful insight offered in the book’s final sentence: One must 'do the experiment.'
Though the people in Barrett’s work are fictional, the science is always real. In these six stories, Barrett acts as a kind of storyteller’s ubiquitin, revisiting characters and situations portrayed in her previous nine books but repurposing elements for fresh results ... Each story here offers her signature gifts: lyrical distillation of scientific complexity, artful wonder at the natural world, exquisitely observed details, and prose as precise and inevitable as a mathematical proof. The result, just like the functioning of the cells in your body, is amazing. With Natural History, MacArthur fellow Barrett adds more elements to her masterwork, the cross-referenced periodic table of personalities stretching from today back to the Civil War, all connected by science and ties to a small town by a lake in upstate New York ... With their kaleidoscope interconnectedness, the overlapping circles of Barrett’s stories, from this collection as well as her earlier works, add up to something large and delightful as well.
... you need not have read earlier stories to be informed and dazzled by Natural History ... Barrett demonstrates that while history organizes and distills events, fiction brings messy humanity gloriously to life.
Readers new to Barrett will be entranced by the intricate beauty of her prose, her acute sense of place, and the vibrant inner lives and daring decisions of her intriguing and unusual characters ... Barrett transforms deep knowledge of history, science, and human nature into gorgeously vital and insightful stories in which every element is richly brewed, mulled, and redolent.
... finely crafted ... Barrett offers well-observed details of the region, and Dierdre and Rose’s imbalanced friendship makes for an intriguing parallel to Henrietta and Daphne, as Rose is now a schoolteacher after showing early promise while Dierdre is a star biologist. This offers rich rewards.