This novel is a story inside a story. One story is good; the other is disappointing. Esther Gottesfeld survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, though she lost her sister and her fiancé in the flames. She has told her tale many times over the years to journalists, family members, and historians, among others. Several versions of her story are included in the book, in the form of interviews and trial transcripts, and they all contain discrepancies. Why are there discrepancies? Maybe because it happened over 70 years ago, and an old lady forgets. Maybe there is some other reason. Esther's voice and her story are realistic, sympathetic, and compelling. The questions about her experience are raised (for the most part) with subtlety and skill, and are answered equally well.
Framing Esther's experiences is the story of her granddaughter Rebecca, a medical researcher, and Rebecca's partner George, a composer. There is also a third character, a feminist historian who is researching the Triangle fire. Three more annoying, less effective characters would be difficult to find. Long sections of the book describe George's musical compositions, which are based on obscure mathematical formulas that he derives from nature – who wants to read prose descriptions of how music sounds? These parts were screamingly dull, and I skipped most of them. Rebecca is flat and humorless, a loner, and a character who elicits absolutely no sympathy or connection from the reader. And finally, Ruth, the historian, is a ridiculous parody of a feminist, even down to the supposed "Herstory" conference for which she is writing about the Triangle fire. Does this author have some grudge against feminist historians that she feels will be mitigated by creating this grating, unrealistic character? And why is Rebecca so unsympathetic? What purpose is served by her coldness?
I realize that George's music is supposed to evoke inexpressible feelings and serve as some kind of counterpoint to the gritty reality of Esther's experience; I realize that keeping Esther at a distance allows us to better analyze her possible motivations. Clearly these are literary devices that some people respond to positively. I found them distracting and unpleasant, and they interfered with my pure enjoyment of Esther, one tough old lady.
Katharine Weber has an interesting web site with links to several articles about the genesis of this book.
Esther's book: Grade A
Rebecca/George/Ruth's book: Grade D
(Book 32, 2006)