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Triangle: A Novelby Katharine Weber
"Weber excels at a kind of fully realized, three-dimensional fiction. Her characters live, breathe, and inhabit very convincing spaces....Triangle is neatly plotted and embedded with sufficient clues to allow a diligent reader to unravel most of Esther's mystery far too easily. But when the denouement does arrive, there's just not quite enough 'there' there." Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister and fiancé among them, burned or jumped to their deaths from the sweatshop inferno? Are the discrepancies in her various accounts over the years just ordinary human fallacy, or is there a hidden story in Esther's recollections of that terrible day?
Esther's granddaughter Rebecca Gottesfeld, with her partner George Botkin, an ingenious composer, seek to unravel the facts of the matter while Ruth Zion, a zealous feminist historian of the fire, bores in on them with her own mole-like agenda. A brilliant, haunting novel about one of the most terrible tragedies in early-twentieth-century America, Triangle forces us to consider how we tell our stories, how we hear them, and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.
"The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, most of them women, and galvanized efforts to reform working conditions in sweatshops. In Esther Gottesfeld, the last remaining survivor of the Triangle fire, Weber (The Little Women) creates a believable and memorable witness to the horrors of that day. Esther managed to escape, but her fianc, Sam, and her sister, Pauline, both perished in the blaze. In 2001, Esther is living in a New York Jewish retirement home, visited often by her beloved granddaughter Rebecca and Rebecca's longtime partner, George Botkin. Rebecca and George's story and quirky rapport take up half of the book, and descriptions of George's music provide a needed counterpoint to the harrowing accounts of the fire and its aftermath. But Ruth Zion, a humorless but perceptive feminist scholar, sees inconsistencies in Esther's story and determines to ferret them out through repeated interviews with Esther and, after her death, with Rebecca. The novel carefully, and wrenchingly, allows both the reader and Rebecca to discover the secret truth about Esther and the Triangle without spelling it out; it is a truth that brings home the real sufferings of factory life as well as the human capacity to tell the stories we want to hear. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Katharine Weber's fourth novel, 'Triangle,' begins in the voice of Esther Gottesfeld, who recalls her escape from the devastating Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911 in New York City, in which 146 workers died, including her sister Pauline. 'This is what happened. I was working at my machine, with only a few minutes left before the end of the day, I remember so clearly ...' Many of the sweatshop workers... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) were burned as their bodies piled up beside a locked exit, or on a mangled fire escape that dangled high above the ground, or in an elevator shaft, or before horrified witnesses below, who stood helpless while victims leapt to their deaths from ninth-floor windows. It is a gripping first chapter, at the end of which the story takes its first twist. The first chapter turns out to be a pamphlet, a transcribed recollection published by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1961. (Weber has a personal interest in the factory; her paternal grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Company in 1909, but left prior to the time of the fire.) Weber provides this backdrop of tragic, real events against which to set her fiction. The fire stands as a pivotal moment in both New York City and state political and labor union history. Set in contemporary times, the book has three main characters and is divided into three parts. Thus begins the triangle. Rebecca Gottesfeld, a geneticist, is a counselor in Clinical Genetics; her partner, George Botkin, is an eccentric and brilliantly talented composer; Esther, Rebecca's beloved grandmother, lives in a nursing home and at 106 is nearing the end of her life. Esther is the last living survivor of the notorious fire and, not surprisingly, researchers and historians have contacted her over the years asking her to tell and retell her story. But she has secrets that she will not reveal. Is it failing memory that accounts for conflicting details? We are forced to consider how history is created. Through the introduction of a fourth person, Ruth Zion, a feminist historian who acts in a rather deus ex machina role, questions about Esther's past come to the attention of Rebecca and George. Ruth strides, brazenly and uninvited, into people's lives and comes across as a bit of a caricature, even though her information is vital to the unfolding of the story. What really happened at the time of the conflagration? What was Esther's role during the infamous trial held after the fire? What was her relationship with the owners, who were eventually acquitted? A mystery is woven around these questions. Weber relies on newspaper reports and interview transcriptions for entire chapters, and in this way she varies the telling. Information comes at us in a way that is fittingly reminiscent of factory piecework: history, perceived history, present day, past, back to present again. There are surprises, and the reader is led to an understanding of these before George and Rebecca — who, after her grandmother's death, is the last to put the clues together. In some ways the book is written symphonically, with themes varied and reiterated. In fact, so much weight is placed on George as musician and composer that he threatens to take over the main story. He becomes more interesting than Rebecca, although they complement each other in the very best ways. 'Triangle' is an enticing read, but its structure constantly intrudes. The ending, however, is grand and moving — an inventive finale. George composes the Triangle Oratorio, and the chapter written around the Oratorio involves the reader most fully. The last hanging threads are gathered; the seams dissolve. We feel we must grieve. Esther's life is honored, as are the lives of the factory workers who perished almost a hundred years ago. Fact and fiction merge. It is interesting that the art of music ends up fleshing out the triangle. Frances Itani's novel 'Deafening' won a Commonwealth Award and was shortlisted for the 2005 IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award." Reviewed by Frances Itani, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Weber demonstrates her deep understanding of her characters in this beautiful novel perfectly introduced by Robert Pinsky's poem 'Shirt.' Highly recommended." Library Journal
"[B]eautiful and haunting....Weber makes a significant point in this remarkable, quietly brilliant novel, that we need to both excavate facts and utilize our imaginations...in order to better know ourselves and our shared past." Hartford Courant
"With Triangle, [Weber] takes an unabashedly witty, boldly postmodern approach to an iconic American tragedy....Weber persuades us to go along with her by sheer storytelling ability." Los Angeles Times
"An exploration of history, memory and the meaning of truth that never quite coheres as a story." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] pleasure that rewards close attention....[Weber] writes beautifully and makes wise choices, letting the reader work to unravel the mystery." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"However contrived the characters may seem at times, Weber's intellectually and emotionally engaged writing ensures we care about them. Triangle's structure enhances our empathy and adds suspense..." USA Today
"An elegant novel of ideas...rather than a re-creation of a historical event." Booklist
"Triangle is a strange, haunting and utterly compelling work that will linger long, like smoke after a fire." Baltimore Sun
By the time she dies at age 106, Esther Gottesfeld, the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, has told the story of that day many times. But her own role remains mysterious: How did she survive? Are the gaps in her story just common mistakes, or has she concealed a secret over the years? As her granddaughter seeks the real story in the present day, a zealous feminist historian bears down on her with her own set of conclusions, and Esther's voice vies with theirs to reveal the full meaning of the tragedy.
A brilliant chronicle of the event that stood for ninety years as New York's most violent disaster, Triangle forces us to consider how we tell our stories, how we hear them, and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.
About the Author
Katharine Weber is the author of the novels The Little Women, The Music Lesson, and Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Her paternal grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.
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