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A Novel

Katharine Weber


Triangle Download image

ISBN10: 0312426143
ISBN13: 9780312426149

Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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Winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction
Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award
Finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize
Longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

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.


Praise for Triangle

"Triangle is an enticing read . . . the ending . . . 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, The Washington Post

"Weber has warned us that reality is not always what it seems and that narrators are not necessarily to be trusted . . . Alert readers will discern the central secret underlying Esther's prevarications long before George figures it out, and I think the author intends them to. Weber's primary concern is not what Esther did but how she lived with it. Rebecca and George, we come to realize, have adopted their own methods of dealing with sorrow and fear, and their mannerisms drop away as they delve deeper into Esther's past. In art, the closing chapters suggest, we find the fullest exploration of life's cataclysmic, transformative experiences, as well as the strength to endure them . . . [Weber] elegantly glides into her own verbal music with one final rendition of Esther's memories of March 25, 1911—two, actually, as the dying woman remembers what really happened and then offers her own vision of what she desperately, all her long life, wished had happened instead."—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times

"[The author] writes beautifully and makes wise choices, letting the reader work to unravel the mystery."—Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Weber puts her stories together like piecework, like the work done by the two sisters in Triangle . . . Ms. Weber stitches together an interview, an article, a conventional third-person narrative the way one sister added the left sleeve, the other the right, to finish a dress. Ms. Weber's figurative sleeves at first appear to be made of fabrics that don't match—burlap and chiffon—but they get set at last into a garment whose shape is ultimately pleasing, and visible only by inference, which is also pleasing . . . The description of young women struggling to get out of the firetrap building—suffocating, turned to human torches or jumping to certain death—is wrenching. That's the burlap . . . [the parts are] arranged by a skilled literary gameswoman, and they play to the involuntarily amoral capacity of every reader to have fun fitting them together."—Anna Shapiro, The New York Observer

"Inspired by a grandmother who finished buttonholes for the Triangle Waist Company, Katharine Weber has turned the infamous 1911 Shirtwaist sweatshop fire into a haunting exercise in memory (in a Greenwich Village nursing home, a 106-year-old survivor named Esther isn't quite telling the truth) and property rights (her granddaughter refuses to relinquish the meaning of Esther's story to a feminist ideologue)—and an eerie prefiguring of 9/11 (bodies falling out of the sky in flames). Every narrator in Triangle is unreliable, yet we believe the lot of them: Esther, who went through a locked door with a library card and a union pin; granddaughter Rebecca, a counselor in Yale's clinical genetics department; Rebecca's genius boyfriend, George, who composes symphonies and string quartets out of tide tables and DNA profiles; even egomaniacal Ruth, the author of ‘Gendered Space in the Workplace' . . . Weber makes art of it all."—John Leonard, New York magazine

"Weber's intellectually and emotionally engaged writing ensures we care about them. Triangle's structure enhances our empathy and adds suspense, incorporating Esther's testimony and interviews, amusing magazine profiles of George and a moving passage that evokes his music and Esther's spirit. At its sharpest, Triangle affirms the often tricky relationship between fact and fiction and the subjectivity of all human experience."—Elysa Gardner, USA Today

"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 . . . 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 . . . 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 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 contemporary readers . . . [Triangle] 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 . . . 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 . . . highly readable and even rather haunting . . . To borrow from Weber herself, Triangle serves to remind us that the events of the past are often closer than they appear."—Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

"Despite the historical facts at the core of Triangle, Weber has crafted a true mystery: Much is hidden in the ashes of that fire as well as in the double helixes of George and Rebecca's lives . . . Triangle is a strange, haunting and utterly compelling work that will linger long, like smoke after a fire."—Victoria A. Brownworth, The Baltimore Sun

"Esther's eloquence is stunning . . . Weber makes a significant point in this remarkable, quietly brilliant novel, that we need to both excavate facts and utilize our imaginations—consider research and creativity as intertwined strands of DNA—in order to better know ourselves and our shared past.—Jenny Minton, The Hartford Courant

"Katharine Weber's Esther Gottesfeld is . . . the last [survivor] when she dies at 106, just before 9/11. The book includes her transcribed recollections of the event, rendered by Weber in a voice and style that feel utterly authentic, heartbroken (her fiancé and her sister perish in the fire) but unsentimental . . . The musical motifs are potent and clever; George's genius resides in an alchemical ability to turn science, especially genetics, Rebecca's field, into music, such as Protein Rhapsodies, or Parturition, the hearing of which sends overdue pregnant women into another sort of labour . . . In terms of structure, think of this highly accomplished novel as an essay in counterpoint, alternating between Esther's tale and the efforts of Rebecca and George . . . as well as Zion, to dig to the surprising truth beneath the often conflicting versions of what happened. This novel of love and memory, truth and lies, and the harshness of factory life less than 100 years ago, is clearly a labour of devotion, and of catharsis."—Martin Levin, Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"Triangle is a marvel of ingenuity, bridging history and imagination, astonishing musical inventiveness and genuine social tragedy. It is a wide-awake novel as powerful as it is persuasive, probing and capturing human verities." —Cynthia Ozick, author of Heir to the Glimmering World

"Weber has always been a brilliant and ingenious formalist; at last she has found a subject deep and durable enough to bear the jeweled precision of her gaze. Here one of our most irresistible writers meets one of the most immovable events of our history. Triangle is an incandescent novel." —Madison Smartt Bell, author of The Stone That the Builder Refused

"Triangle is a finely written contemplation of love, memory, terror, music and DNA. Precise and clear-eyed, the novel examines the power of recollection in surviving overwhelming tragedy with both pathos and humanity."—Barbara Chase-Riboud, author of Hottentot Venus

"Blending music and memory together in arresting arrangement, Triangle is a unique and poignant tale of the varieties of love and loss."—Rebecca Goldstein, author of Mazel and The Mind-Body Problem

"Slippery as an unreliable witness, Triangle maps the gap between memory and history. Out of the most unlikely materials, Katharine Weber has fashioned a generational mystery that plays as both academic farce and real-life tragedy."—Stewart O'Nan, author of The Good Wife

"It's a very special and compelling book, worth reading more than once, and a prize candidate, in my not-so-humble opinion . . . The central character . . . is so intricate and believable that she'll sit in the corner of your mind for a long time."—Marilis Hornidge, The Courier-Gazette

"Esther Gottesfeld has been famous most of her life, because in 1911, when she was just 16, she escaped the tragic Triangle Waist Company fire when so many others perished. Decades later, Esther, sarcastic and feisty, is interviewed by an irritating feminist researcher, Ruth Zion, whose questions probe lurid personal details of the tragedy. Esther's death at age 106 comes just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, an event Weber skillfully weaves into Esther's story. Granddaughter Rebecca must decipher the puzzling contents of Esther's safety deposit box while Ruth continues prying because of discrepancies in Esther's telling and retelling of what happened the day of the fire. Rebecca turns to her eccentric boyfriend, George Botkin, an experimental music composer, who helps put the pieces together. He composes the Triangle Overture, an ambitious, bold, and complex finale that Weber imaginatively uses to tie up the reminiscences, flashbacks, and trial testimony revolving around locked doors and crooked building inspectors. Weber demonstrates her deep understanding of her characters in this beautiful novel perfectly introduced by Robert Pinsky's poem 'Shirt.'"—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa City Public Library, Grand Junction, Colorado, Library Journal

"Triangle is a series of complex, multilayered, triangular connections with links as tight as the threads in a shirt–Esther, Pauline, and the fiancé; Esther, Rebecca, and George; Rebecca, George, and Ruth–the permutations go on and on. Branching off into music theory and chemistry, this is a challenging and somewhat esoteric read that should appeal to mathematically and scientifically inclined teens as well as those who enjoy the mystery of the human heart and its relationships."—Charli Osborne, Oxford Public Library, Mississippi, School Library Journal

"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 creates a believable and memorable witness to the horrors of that day. In 2001, Esther is living in a New York Jewish retirement home, visited often by her beloved granddaughter 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."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads