June 14, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Katharine Weber
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
We gave it an A-

Triangle, Katharine Weber’s crackerjack historical mystery, may be the most effective 9/11 novel yet written — and it isn’t even about 9/11. The attack on the Twin Towers brings out the grandiose in artists; Weber has found a way around that.

At 106, Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when nearly 150 garment workers, mostly immigrant women, perished. Some, including Esther’s sister Pauline, jumped to their deaths. Esther escaped by fleeing to the roof, and she’s told her story countless times — in court that year, and more recently in interviews with busybody feminist professor Ruth Zion, who is convinced she’s hiding something.

Perhaps, but when Esther dies Ruth hounds Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca and Rebecca’s longtime lover, George, a brilliant avant-garde composer. (The descriptions of George’s music, which mimics patterns in nature, are a stand-alone treat.) Weber gradually peels away the layers — genetic, sexual, financial — of Esther’s secret, and she has a terrific time with her characters: Esther is a crabby, canny crone, and Ruth, a hilariously self-absorbed nudge. There’s also a running joke about dry poppyseed cake.

Weber drops all drollery in the transcendent finale, a dream sequence that places us right on the ledge of a burning building, with ordinary people about to leap. The passage is so human in its particulars, yet so universal in its horror, it ceases to matter which New York catastrophe she’s describing.

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