(Reviewed by Olivia Boler JAN 16, 2004)
There’s something about those eras during and just after World Wars I and II that can evoke nostalgia in a certain generation of Americans. My mother-in-law, for example, is an avid reader who can’t get enough of novels written about this period of time, and whenever she lends me books, it’s things like Anita Shreve’s Resistance and Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement. Jennifer Haigh’s newest novel, Baker Towers, will certainly appeal to readers like my mother-in-law.
The story wends its way through the lives of the Novaks, a working class family who live in the Polish Hill area of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a coalmining town. In the 1940s, the town is populated with first- and second-generation immigrants from Europe. The men work under backbreaking conditions in cramped, dark tunnels for hours at a stretch. The book opens with the image of a train snaking its way through the town: “rows of company houses, narrow and square; a main street of commercial buildings, quickly and cheaply built.” It’s the typical image of an industry town, of the American Dream just around the corner. The train carries coal down the mountain, through the valley, and into the homes of an America at war.
The war has touched the Novaks—the eldest son, Georgie, has been drafted and is serving in the South Pacific. He’s not around when his father Stanley, after the “Hoot Owl” nightshift in the mine, keels over and dies of a heart attack in the family’s basement. Stanley’s death, like the war, is an upheaval for the family, and yet, one gets the impression that the course of their lives would not be much different had he lived. The eldest daughter, Dorothy, shy and awkward, yet with the exotic features of Hedy Lamarr, takes a secretarial job in Washington, D. C. after failing at the dress factory where Bakerton’s women work if they haven’t a man at the mines. Her younger sister, Joyce, diligently continues her studies at the local high school, hoping the war won’t be over by the time she is old enough to join the Air Force. Rose Novak, their mother, if anything, is the most affected by Stanley’s death and fills the hole he has left with a new taste for sweets, her eventual downfall. Her youngest children, Sandy and Lucy, are left to their own devices after their father is gone, although Rose never fail to care for them. In fact, one might observe that she’s too indulgent—Lucy sleeps in the same bed as her mother throughout her childhood and Sandy runs wild, a handsome, charming boy who can get away with just about anything.
The years go by, the war ends, and the reader follows the progress of the Novaks and Bakerton up through the 1960s. As America prospers in the 1950s, so does the town—it’s U. S. history under a microscope as new businesses move in (following prosperity where prosperity lives), the company housing goes up for sale, the miners go on strike for a better wage, and the mines, inevitably wiped out of their resource, shut their doors. In the meantime, the Novaks make their way through the world, tangential to “Baker Towers”—those piles of mine waste that fill the town with a sulfurous odor connoting success—yet still affected by the vissitudes of the town’s livelihood: Dorothy returns home after a nervous breakdown and falls for a divorced miner. Georgie marries, miserably, up. Sandy disappears and little, chubby Lucy turns into a bombshell. It’s Joyce who is the glue of the family, practical, hard-working Joyce, who keeps everyone from flying apart for good. Haigh has stitched together an engrossing, moving story, and I’m definitely lending Baker Towers to my mother-in-law.
- Amazon readers rating: from 77 reviews
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(Reviewed by Karma Sawka FEB 20, 2003)
"I read somewhere that the French have a formula," said Kimble. "Have you heard this? For marital happiness. The woman should be half the man's age, plus seven years."
Jody giggled. "That's silly."
"It's the ideal over there." Kimble winked at Anne-Sophie. "Am I right?"
"I've heard something like that," she said. "But it's a joke. It isn't serious."
"Of course not." Jody doused her potatoes with gravy. "It doesn't make sense. If both people are the right age now, what happens in ten years? The numbers don't work."
Mrs. Kimble is a novel in three parts, each describing an era in the life of Mr. Kimble, from the perspective of his wife at the time.
The first, titled Birdie, Virginia, 1969, tells how this sweet young bible college student was swept off her 18-year old feet by her 32-year old choir teacher, only to be abandoned with her two young children eight years later. When we meet her, she has been dealing with - or rather, not dealing with - her new status as a woman left behind with two small children. Birdie starts drinking cheap wine, bottles of it, to cope with her disbelief that her husband would suddenly leave her for another young student, Moira Snell. Raised in a proper home, and spending her early adulthood with the social expectations of the wife of a clergyman, Birdie has never known a white woman who had a job and barely has any skills to help her land one of her own. Eventually, child protection services will come knocking on the door, checking in on poor Charlie and Jody, the children who keep themselves going all summer on jelly sandwiches and apples when there's enough grocery money left after buying a couple bottles of wine.
Soon after Mr. Kimble runs away with Moira Snell, we open to a section of the book titled Joan, Florida, 1969. Interesting his new girlfriend's name is Moira! Joan is the older (late-30s!), single, career woman who has become friends with Moira's parents and was once a sort of confidante or older sister to Moira. When Moira brings her hippie-looking older boyfriend Ken home to her parents' fabulous Florida pool party, her parents are more than a little concerned about their baby girl shacking up with this man they know nothing about. The lovebirds don't end up staying together long, and Joan somehow offers Ken a guestroom at her recently deceased father's estate. There's his ticket in. Joan, lonely in Florida and missing the fast pace of her international journalism career based in New York City, is a breast cancer survivor and suddenly feels a hole in her world that slowly and quietly, Ken Kimble begins to fill. Their relationship is rather passionless and strange, but Kimble obviously knows how to get something he wants. He pretends to be Jewish, marries Joan, gets a foot in the door of the family real estate business, and when we begin the third installment of the book, about ten years later, he is a very wealthy widower.
Finally, Mr. Kimble meets up with another young bride in Dinah, 1979, Washington D.C. Obviously, Ken's perception of the French view of marriage to a younger woman is his modus operandi. Dinah recognizes Mr. Kimble from her hometown, Richmond, Virginia. She used to baby-sit Charlie and Jody and had a secret crush on Mr. Kimble when she was 14 years old. She grew up, self-conscious and terribly teased by other kids, with a large birthmark on her face. Now, an independent woman living on her own in the city, Dinah finds new confidence in her skills as a chef in a great restaurant. When she sees Ken Kimble, though, everything changes. Dinah becomes the wealthy real estate tycoon's trophy wife. The first thing he does for her is pay for laser skin treatments to get rid of the birthmark; Dinah realizes later that her husband hates anything ugly and so the treatment was more for him than for his wife's self-esteem. She puts her own life and career on hold to be the beautiful blond bride on the arm of the rich, gray haired, tuxedoed husband at dinner parties and award ceremonies. When their son is 15 years old, it's quite plain that Dinah's is a marriage without passion or fulfillment. Suddenly, her husband is calling from the airport to let her know that he has business out of state and that he'll be gone for a few days. Next thing she knows, her husband is in the news for suspicious business dealings and reporters stalk her driveway, sniffing for a tidbit of information.
Each of the women that Ken Kimble develops relationships with has such human needs - love, acceptance, companionship - and he is so charming. The sad ways in which he deceives them are rendered with compassion and realism by Ms. Haigh. I felt for these women, whose lives were so altered by someone they believe truly loved them, but someone the reader knows will betray each of them as the story unfolds.
The end of the story leaves us hanging with questions; the most obvious is to ask where Ken Kimble has really disappeared to. But the real questions I ended up with were: Who is Ken Kimble? Was Birdie really his first wife? How many other women and families has he destroyed? Was he calculating about it or did he have some sort of psychological problems in handling relationships?
And despite the knowledge that Ken Kimble has betrayed and seemingly destroyed every woman he married, there are little glimpses of hope for each of them. Birdie, living in apparent squalor and wine-numbing disarray, quietly forges ahead with her childhood friend and sweetheart without telling her children. Joan has a moment of harsh reality when she temporarily has the children she has always dreamed of and then not peace or hope, really, but a sense of relief when the lump she has been willing to appear finally is felt. Dinah has the greatest opportunity for a future. She is still very young when Ken leaves, she has a beau who cares very much for her, and she is redefining what family means to her and redefining what her life will be without the infamous Mr. Kimble.
- Amazon readers rating: from 91 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Mrs. Kimble (2003)
- Baker Towers (2005)
- The Condition (2008)
- Faith (2011)
- News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories (January 2013)
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- The official Web site for Mrs. Kimble
- Reading Guide for Baker Towers
- MostlyFiction.com review of Faith
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About the Author:
Jennifer Haigh grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Dickinson College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was awarded a 2002 James A. Michener Fellowship. Her short stories have been published in Good Housekeeping, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Idaho Review, Global City Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.