Weber (The Little Women, 2003, etc.) considers a notorious American tragedy, in her third novel.
Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Her granddaughter, Rebecca, is a neuroscientist. Rebecca’s lover George is a musical genius, someone who can turn the smell of new chalk or the amino acid sequences of polypeptides into song. The story begins with Esther’s oral history of the fire; it’s written in a style that’s as restrained and unadorned as the topic is sensational. Unfortunately, this riveting start is followed by a lengthy, painfully expository description of George’s career. While it may be good for the author to know so much about her character’s vocation, she needn’t relate a 40-page curriculum vitae. There are snippets of narrative—scenes in which Rebecca makes an appearance, the description of the death of a friend—but this is not so much a depiction of a life as the synopsis of a life. The chapter outlining Rebecca’s professional history isn’t any livelier. There’s substantially more backstory here than actual story, which turns on the possibility that Esther’s recollections of the fire—including her testimony in the case against the factory bosses—might not be true. Rebecca is first confronted with this possibility right after her grandmother dies, when she receives a call from Ruth Zion, a historian studying the fire. Weber assembles a lot of information—interview transcripts, courtroom transcripts, newspaper articles—but she doesn’t shape this material into a compelling narrative, nor does she create truly compelling characters. Ruth is an unfunny caricature of a feminist scholar. When they’re together, Rebecca and George are so cute and clever that they seem more like a vaudeville act than an actual couple. As for George’s strange—and exhaustively documented—musical gifts, they seem to belong to a different novel altogether.
An exploration of history, memory and the meaning of truth that never quite coheres as a story.