By Katharine Weber
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 242 pp., $23
Katharine Weber has been praised for writing novels with the puzzle plot of a mystery but the attention to style and characterization of literary fiction. ``Triangle" is a case in point, as Weber imaginatively reconfigures a historical tragedy, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire , which stood for 90 years as New York's deadliest disaster.
In the late summer of 2001, Esther Gottesfeld, at 106 the last survivor of the fire, is finally letting go of her long, long life and her terrible memories of enveloping flames, burning flesh, desperate victims plunging to the ground. There are odd inconsistencies in Esther's oft-told tale. But the few people who still listen -- Esther's granddaughter, Rebecca; Rebecca's companion, George, an award-winning composer; and the feminist ``herstorian" Ruth Zion -- are too close to it to discern a pattern, though Weber takes care to evoke their intelligence with charm and respect. Rebecca, a geneticist, will eventually analyze the clues and unlock the mystery, while George's music will offer a transcendent resolution.
Esther's death only days before Sept. 11 closes the books on the old tragedy as a new and more dreadful one commences. In the face of horror, Weber suggests, intellect takes us only so far. Ultimately, great sorrow must be entrusted to art.
Tomorrow They Will Kiss
By Eduardo Santiago
Back Bay, 282 pp., paperback, $13.99
``Tomorrow they will kiss," the women assure one another, chewing over the tribulations of their favorite Spanish soap opera characters, the heroines and heroes of the telenovelas they watch every evening after a hard day's work. The women -- Graciela, Caridad, and Imperio -- never dreamed when they were growing up together in a provincial Cuban town on the eve of the revolution that they would soon be together again, working in a dingy toy factory in New Jersey, impossibly far from home.
For Caridad and Imperio, who refuse to reconcile themselves to exile, the hope implicit in that much-anticipated ``tomorrow" is the false hope of returning someday to a Cuba magically restored to the homeland of their gilded memories. To Graciela, more romantic and yet also more pragmatic than her disapproving old schoolmates, it means a new life of happiness and fulfillment for the American woman she must learn to become.
Though content to skim surfaces, the novel is enjoyable, even touching. It is timely, too, reminding us in the midst of a polarized debate over immigration of the multiplicity of real-life meanings encompassed by that term.
Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood
By Adrienne Martini
Free Press, 224 pp., $23
Some lucky ladies inherit Grandma's silver, or at least her recipe for chicken soup. As this ``Memoir of Madness and Motherhood" attests, the ``grand tradition" in Adrienne Martini's family is of a different order altogether: ``After a woman gives birth, she goes mad."
Sharp and sassy with a hint of rue, ``Hillbilly Gothic" traces the strain of psychosis that runs like a witch's curse through the author's genetic heritage. For Martini, who was happily married and working at a newspaper in Knoxville, Tenn., it leaped out and grabbed her at the worst possible moment, at the birth of her first child, an experience that sent her -- feeling helpless, weepy, and anything but radiant -- straight from the maternity ward to the bizarre sanctuary of a mental hospital.
The author's account of her Appalachian roots and her feisty pre-parenthood self will have the reader laughing out loud, though both the laughter and, more tellingly, the quirky individuality fade as the memoir progresses. Maybe the role-model responsibilities Martini takes upon herself as a spokeswoman for postpartum depression weigh too heavily. Or perhaps recalling her harrowing breakdown is harder than she'd hoped. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that she retains a sense of humor at all.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.