Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Triangle by Katharine Weber




(Mildly Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






Katharine Weber’s quirky novel, Triangle, recounts the memorable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909, as recalled by the sole remaining survivor, Esther Gottesfeld. One of Weber’s themes is that a story told often enough becomes more real than the truth. Through the prodding of a feminist herstorian, and the attention of granddaughter Rebecca, the real truth emerges. The relationship between Rebecca and her partner, George, provides a respite from the repetitive recollection of the fire. The musician George writes an oratorio about the fire, using the triangle as a motif. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 55-61:


George had listened to his messages and was expecting Rebecca when she arrived at his door. He was hovering and impatient by the time he heard her familiar sounds in the hall, and before she could fit her key into the lock, he had the door open. Their hug was almost a collision.

“I had an ear out for your footsteps,” he said into her hair after a moment. “You have very distinctive footsteps. You walk in du­ple rhythm, you know.” He drummed the rhythm lightly on her shoulder with one hand to demonstrate.

“Doesn’t everyone? Oh god, I’m so glad to see you,” she said against his shirt. He was wearing one of his big, crazy Hawaiian print shirts over chinos, with cheap sneakers he bought out of the bins on Fourteenth Street, which made him look like a giant tod­dler much of the time. George was well over six feet tall, yet he moved with the unconscious gait of a child. This shirt was one she particularly liked, with red and white monkeys and bananas.

“I’m sorry I was 404 all day. I had a great day, actually, very productive, but I feel bad that you wanted to talk to me when you couldn’t. You should implant a microchip or something. A Lo­Jack. I am so sorry. I hate the way I am not a grown-up, if it added to your upsetness.” He hugged her tightly for a moment and then resumed his syncopation on her back, now double-timing it, adding a complicated counter-rhythm with the other hand between the wings of her shoulder blades, suddenly genuinely fascinated with new possibilities, new inventions. “Beck, you know the wonderful ‘Walking the Dog’ sequence in Shall We Dance?” She nodded as she felt his big hands segue into the pattern of that familiar musi­cal interlude.

He swayed a little, almost dancing with her, as he hummed the opening—”Hmm hm hm hm hmp-hmp”—and then inter­rupted himself. “You know Gershwin scored that using only six instruments?”

“You tell me that about once a month. We’re not both senile. You’re obsessed. Something about how he wrote it to mock big or­chestral flourishes, right? Do I win the car? Or the trip to Hawaii? Or just your voice on my answering machine? But do we have to talk about this right now? May I come in, instead of having this truly fascinating if somewhat familiar conversation in your door­way, where there is a bit of a draft, which doesn’t seem to bother you but makes me wonder if someone left the door to the roof open again? Maybe busboys up there on a smoking break, like last month? And do you want to say where you were more specifically? And may I tell you about Esther?” Rebecca asked, disengaging gracefully in order to drag her overnight bag in from the hallway and kick the door shut behind them.

George’s loft was the entire top floor of a late-nineteenth-century building that had a mix of apartments and professional spaces in the five floors beneath him. The recalcitrant elevator al­ways alarmed her, so Rebecca was a little breathless from having taken the stairs. The rich, garlicky aroma that had followed her up the stairs emanated from the Italian restaurant on the ground floor. She was hungry, though not enough to want to eat there. It was an old Village fixture, mentioned in memoirs of various Beat poets and New York School painters, but it was no longer very good (if it ever really had been—there was a time when red-checked tablecloths, candles stuck into Chianti bottles, and insouciant waiters with accents were all a restaurant needed to be considered the real thing).

Dubious hygiene standards in the kitchen attracted so many mice that, although George had been sufficiently amused and in­spired by the nocturnal sounds of the building’s scurrying inhab­itants to write a charming little Scherzo for Mighty Mice several years back—which had since gained a huge following among music teachers of young children—after too many unamusing rodent-American encounters under his own kitchen sink and on his pantry shelves, George had finally conceded that Rebecca was right, he needed a cat. He had wanted to call the slender orange tiger they picked out at the shelter Milhaud, but Rebecca thought it a laughably pretentious name, despite points for the onoma­topoeic element, and after George had rejected Helix the Cat for being completely stupid and pretentious, inexcusable even if Re­becca did work in genetics, they had settled on Joe Green, which suited the dapper little cat perfectly.

“So I spent the day in an amazing laboratory over at NYU,” George said, “and I have to tell you about it for about six reasons, one of which will interest you especially. But Beck, first tell me what’s up with Esther. After I got your message, I called there while I was waiting for you, thinking I might find you, but all Clara told me was that she was sleeping.”

“She’s failing. Her time’s up,” Rebecca said briefly, fighting sud­den tears all over again (an intense crying episode on the train had alarmed the businessman next to her; she thought he had gotten off at Westport, but spotting him in the exiting throng when they arrived at Grand Central Station made her realize that he had sim­ply changed seats in Westport to get away from her). She dropped into the corner of the big blue sofa where Joe Green was already stretched out along the top of the cushions. She plucked him from his perfect repose and snuggled him onto her chest, kicking off her shoes and lying back against the end cushion with her legs stretched out. She found the sweet spot under the cat’s jaw and worked it until he began to purr. (Joe Green was a reluctant purrer, so it always felt like a major achievement when he succumbed.)

“She’s not exactly dying at this minute, but Clara thinks the time is now, and I guess she would know. She’s seen it before.”

George sat down across from her at the other end of the sofa and put his feet up, intertwining his legs with hers. “Kind of in­evitable, I guess,” he said. “Lucky Joe Green.”

“I’ve been imagining this moment with Esther for the last twenty years, at least,” Rebecca said. “The last thirty years. Maybe all my life. Joe Green is my hero, aren’t you, Mister Verdi Mouse-killer?” She rubbed her nose against his smug little triangular face. He blinked at her and then butted his head up under her chin, which brought on a wave of tenderness that welled up from somewhere deep in her chest. She felt tears rising. “So that’s the story,” she said, her voice breaking a little. George’s steady gaze brought the tears up and over, spilling out now.

“I went by there just now before coming here, and she was sleeping,” Rebecca added, trying to steady herself with the practi­cal facts the way she always did. “I sat with her for a while, but I didn’t want to wake her. So I told them I would be back first thing in the morning, by seven, something like that, and that I’d spend, oh, probably the whole day there, see what it feels like, see what happens. It could be the whole weekend, who knows. They prom­ised they would call me here if there were any changes in the night.”


“If they think she’s about to die. If her breathing pattern changes into Cheyne-Stokes breathing or anything like that. They’ll check on her a lot. I told them I was just a few minutes away.”

“I can go with you,” George offered.

“If something happens tonight, that would be great. But you really don’t have to be there at dawn with me. If you want to come by a little later in the morning, like, whatever works for you, nine­ish, that would be great. I don’t know what your day is supposed to be.”

“How are you doing?” George asked, taking both of her socked feet in his hands. Rebecca favored stripes. Today’s socks were fuzzy, blue and green, which picked up the green in her sweater. He raised them up to his face and kissed each foot cere­moniously. “Are you okay? I love your little square feet. And your feet always smell so sweet! Where do such sweet little square feet come from?”

“Feet run in my family,” Rebecca said wryly.


“And noses. I guess I’m okay. I’m sad.”

“She’s had an amazing and incredibly long life,” George said unnecessarily.

“I know, I know. It’s just that once she got so old, it seemed as though she would just keep living indefinitely. She probably thought she would too.”

“Maybe she’s ready.”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s ready. I think she’s surprised that she’s still here. I’m the one who’s not ready,” said Rebecca.

“I know. But you really are. You know that. You want her to have a good death,” he said gently, still holding her feet.

“It’s true, I do.”

They sat in silence for a while, just gazing at each other, the si­lence as natural to both of them as it was uncommon in most other people. Joe Green jumped off Rebecca and hit the floor with sud­den urgency, as if he had just recalled a prior engagement. Bits of his fur lingered in the air behind him, and Rebecca wiped some stray hairs off her damp face with her sleeve. They both watched as the cat sat abruptly and washed intently for a moment before flinging himself away down the length of the loft toward whatever attracted him next.

“He really knows how to live in the moment,” Rebecca said.

“So, Beck, listen. At dinner, I have to tell you about this ge­netics lab at NYU, where I was today. They’re doing this incredi­ble research with stem cells, and I have a lot of new stuff. I could go in about ten directions, just from what they showed me over there today.”

“I want to hear about it. In a bit. Right now I just need—”


“Just this. Nothing. Everything. Just sitting here with you doing nothing.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“I’m glad I’m here too, George. I’m glad you’re glad.”

“And I’m glad that you’re glad that I’m glad. Ain’t we got gladness—” He drummed a paradiddle on the arm of the couch, finishing with a flourish at an invisible cymbal. “Dinner out, sweetie? I assumed you would be as starved as I am, and there’s not much here. I didn’t want to go out again once I got your message—”

“Anywhere but downstairs, please.” Sometimes Rebecca loved just looking at George’s face. She knew every line, every hollow, every crease. She especially loved the bussed-out look of intense pleasure that made his jaw go slack when he listened to music, in­cluding the music in his head that nobody else could hear. He scowled at her now with a look of mock disappointment.

“Coward. Where’s your sense of danger? Where’s your willing­ness to risk the unknown?”

“Yeah, well, Joe Green told me they were out of the mouse soufflé tonight. And he said the fettuccine rodenti wasn’t al dente. I always trust Joe Green’s advice. So does Moira Hodgson.”

“Who doesn’t?” He gazed at her fondly across the expanse of sofa. “You know, I love your voice, even when it’s got a Brahmsian sadness. It has a wonderful timbre.”

“Oh, please. A Brahmsian sadness? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“No, really, I think your natural register is in G. I’ve told you that.”

“Right. It’s true, you have told me that, but now you’re verg­ing on the self-parodic, which means your blood sugar is probably way too low. Did you eat today? I’m starved. Let’s go eat a really good dinner somewhere decent.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“I hate people who say that.”

“But you’ll always make an exception, won’t you, Rebecca?”

“I also hate people who always think there is an exception that proves the rule.”

“You hate those people as much as people who say ‘win-win’?”

“I despise those people. You’re right. That’s worse. I despise those people as much as you despise Nelson Riddle.”

“Death penalty for all offenders.”

“Absolutely. Sushi? There’s that place just down the block on Eighth Street.”

“You’ll eat dodgy raw fish on a Monday, and you won’t take your chances downstairs?”

“Anywhere but downstairs, please. I mean it.”

“Your profound desire not to eat there trumps my eternal op­timism.”

“Advantage, Brahmsian sadness.”


Triangle gives voice to factory conditions and the place of women in the workforce in 1909. Much of the power of the book comes from the ways in which the stories themselves become defining, whether true or false. In print and music, Triangle is an oratorio for those women.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2006



Buy Triangle

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Triangle.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com