Not long ago, I read an article about the Triangle Fire in Smithsonian magazine that lead me to this book. (I've read so little adult literary fiction lately that I feel the need to explain myself. Anyway.)
Esther Gottesfeld is the last remaining survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—it's a story she's told over and over again, but it's a story that people keep asking to hear. For the last few years, the person doing most of the asking has been Ruth Zion, a somewhat pushy* feminist historian.
When she finally dies, at age 106—in early September, 2001—her version of events still leaves unanswered questions. It falls to her granddaughter, Rebecca, and to Rebecca's partner** George, to sort through the tangle of inconsistencies—to discover the truth while still protecting Esther.
The title refers to the fire itself, of course. But it also refers to George's music, which is based on patterns found in science and nature, and to the relationships between the characters.
Plot-wise, this is unrelated to pretty much everything I've mentioned, but I especially loved this bit:
They became still at this darkening blue hour, listening to to odd yet comfortingly familiar noise of the upstairs neighbor, Al, a solitary copy editor at the New Haven Register, who seemed to spend his waking hours patrolling the perimeters of his apartment in hard shoes, with pauses only for the mysterious dragging that suggested the regular movement of large steamer trunks across bare wooden floors.
I loved Katharine Weber's writing, period—I'm not usually drawn to reading about science and math, but I found the segments about George's music (and about Rebecca's job as a genetics researcher) just as fascinating as the personal relationships and the history. The transcripts of Esther's interviews and testimony brought her to life for me. It was short (less than 250 pages), but it was tight, so tight that I felt much more strongly about these characters than I have about many in other, longer novels.
I had the mystery-twist-ish bit figured out pretty early on, but that didn't detract at all.
Big thumbs up.
*Understatement of the year. I wanted to kick the woman down a flight of stairs. Seriously.
**Personally, not a fan of the term, but boyfriend doesn't work because it doesn't carry the same weight, they aren't married and I like 'significant other' even less. I loved their relationship, by the way.