A Rona Jaffe–esque office drama mingles with an environmental morality tale à la Barbara Kingsolver in Scott’s latest (De Potter’s Grand Tour, 2014, etc.).
The Port of New York Authority's Office of Public Relations, where Mrs. Lee K. Jaffe supervises 11 “clerical girls” more interested in husbands than careers, recalls The Best of Everything, though its melodramatic complications are confined to one employee: unwed mother Pauline Moreau, rescued from prostitution and brought to the Port Authority by Mrs. J in 1964. The odyssey of Bob Whittaker, Pauline’s former boss—and her baby’s father—moves the novel into Animal Dreams territory; he runs an aluminum plant in upstate New York that is poisoning the land, animals, and people around it with toxic waste. The connection between the two plot strands is the World Trade Center, clad in aluminum from Whittaker’s plant, and Mrs. J’s pet project: “She loved, loved, loved a job that allowed her to spend her time turning dreams into reality!” It’s blatantly ironic that Mrs. J, proud of a father who quit his job as a coal mine supervisor rather than cover up unsafe conditions, prides herself on work that involves sugarcoating the Port Authority’s displacement of disgruntled locals. Whittaker’s moral blind spots prove a lot more deadly, as the narrative ricochets around a half-century and yokes together a plethora of disparate elements. A catastrophic fire at the aluminum plant in 1988 brings closure to several storylines yet seems tonally at odds with the haunting final scene among the ghosts of 9/11 victims. The large cast of characters is sharply drawn, but no one gets enough sustained attention to command our emotional engagement; a number of collective scenes voiced by people we never meet again, from aluminum plant workers to World Trade Center protestors, reinforces the sense that this book needed to be longer to work out its potential.
Plenty of interesting material that this talented author should have developed more fully.