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Arts and Entertainment

A Towering Achievement

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The cover of Jennifer Haigh's new book Baker Towers doesn't tell you a thing about what's inside, and we think it's a shame that just because her last novel, the very successful Mrs. Kimble, was about women and marriage, that this one - a detailed, multigenerational historic novel about a Pennsylvania mining town - should have a cover of a forties-era chick reclining on the hood of a car.

Baker Towers revolves around the intertwined lives of a family living on Polish Hill in Bakerton (named for the mines.) From the Italian grandmother to the upwardly mobile daughters to the overweight but happy granddaughter, everyone wants to get out of Bakerton but ends up coming back. Some go to Washington, others to college - some become wealthy, others of the large family stay and marry within the community. Others are eventually killed by the mines. The towers of the title refer to two huge hulks of coal debris that guard the town like an angel of death.

It's a pleasure to read a book that gives the characters room to grow - that begins, includes, and ends with death while still revolving around life. We get to see many of them, especially the delightful Lucy and the very uptight Joyce, grow from little girls to full-grown women. We see a woman go crazy and live through it, finding sanity in an illicit love affair with a divorced man. We see soldiers looking for love and finding sex, and the other way around. Finally, we see Bakerton decline, but the characters thrive like weeds growing out of a mountain of coal. Egan is never critical or condescending towards her characters - and if they love Bakerton well enough to stay, we end up wanting to make a visit ourselves.

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If there's any criticism we have to make of Baker Towers, it's actually that it's not long enough. Haigh has shaped her narrative so fully, done so much research and put such detail into every character, that it seems a shame to rush along at the pace that brings her to a finish in a neat three hundred and thirty-four double-spaced large-type pages. We could have read something three times as long, in a much smaller font, and it wouldn't necessarily have been a bad move - Jonathan Franzen, Wally Lamb, and Vikram Seth, have all had success with very long, intricately plotted novels. We want more, more, more of Jennifer Haigh. She has all the skill of a nineteenth-century novelist. Here's hoping her editors will let her expand into that form.