Triangle: A Novel
by Katharine Weber
Before 9/11 Was the Fire at Triangle
A review by Marjorie Kehe
It was in the middle of a graduate seminar on romantic literature that the professor
startled us with a passing remark. "You all know, of course," he said,
"that this building was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire."
most of us had no idea. We students had been tromping in and out of that ordinary-looking
New York University classroom building for weeks and yet somehow had known nothing
of its tragic past. Was that even possible? It was only later, when I found the
plaque at street level, that I actually believed it.
The Triangle Shirtwaist
factory fire may no longer be top-of-thought for today's average New Yorker.
But perhaps it should be. The parallels to 9/11 are striking.
On that day in
1911 almost 150 workers -- mostly young women -- were killed when fire broke out
in a shirtwaist factory. Typical of the era, little thought had been given to
safety procedures and many of those trapped died pushing against a narrow door
that opened in. Others were caught by their long skirts as they tried to crawl
to safety under the rows of sewing machines.
Of course their deaths were
the result of negligence, not hostility. But just like 9/11, Triangle is
the shocking story of workplace-turned-deathtrap. Young people who had eagerly
been preparing for their weekend at one moment (most had just been paid and in
minutes would have been heading home) were jumping out of ninth-floor windows
at the next. And, as was the case at the World Trade Center, the aftermath was
horrific. Families and friends of the victims appeared, dazed and unsure where
to even begin looking for their loved ones.
All of this is vividly recounted
in the first pages of Triangle, the new novel by Katharine Weber. The description
Weber puts in the mouth of Esther Gottesfeld, the novel's elderly protagonists,
readily evokes the horror felt on 9/11, providing plenty of dramatic context for
But despite the numerous retellings of the events
of that day throughout the novel, Triangle is not really so much a story
about the fire itself. Rather, it is a story about the way that one woman remembered
it - and how the vagaries of both human memory and human desire muddle what we
call history (or "herstory" as Ruth Zion, the novel's annoying nebbish
of an academic, a feminist studying the fire, would have it).
now 106. She recounts that she, her sister Pauline, and her fiancé, Sam,
were all working at the Triangle factory on the day of the blaze. Only Esther
Esther's memories are offered in the form of various testimonies
she has given over the years of the events of that day. These accounts alternate
with the present day tale of Rebecca, Esther's granddaughter, and her charming
man-child boyfriend George who is also a sort of genius composer. (His unlikely
oeuvre is a collection of molecular structures translated into melodies
-- music with the power to cure colds or bring on childbirth.)
some unresolved mysteries about Esther's account of the fire -- inconsistencies
that have been noted over the years -- and no one is hotter to unravel these than
our pushy friend the feminist academic (whose tome Gendered Space in the Workplace,
Past, Present and Future sounds as tedious as its author).
as Zion irks Rebecca and George, she manages to intrigue them: Why isn't Esther's
story entirely consistent? Is she concealing something that happened that day?
of Weber's earlier novels (including The
Little Women, Objects
in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, and The
Music Lesson) will find much that is familiar in Triangle (including
a character -- Patricia Dolan from The Music Lesson makes a cameo appearance
Weber excels at a kind of fully realized, three-dimensional fiction.
Her characters live, breathe, and inhabit very convincing spaces. When gravel
squeaks under their feet as they walk, we hear it. When they banter about where
to have dinner, we almost hope to come along.
Weber's prose also has a pleasing
economy and elegance and the devices by which Triangle cuts from present
to past are never less than deft and surefooted.
But the book is sometimes
just a bit too clever for its own good. The characters in Triangle do a
lot of talking about patterns, particularly in relation to George's music. Such
conversation is clearly linked to Esther's testimony -- a symphony with minor
variations that a careful reader needs to attend to -- but it all becomes a bit
self-conscious and detached, to the point that it takes some of the juice out
of the story.
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"
And yet, Triangle remains highly readable and even rather
haunting. Weber's own connection to the Triangle factory is more than just theoretical
- her grandmother worked there before the fire. Setting a fictional investigation
of the tragedy at Triangle in a post-9/11 New York gives the retelling of those
events an urgency that it would be hard to otherwise achieve. To borrow from Weber
herself, Triangle serves to remind us that the events of the past are often
closer than they appear.
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