A few months ago I read Jennifer Haigh‘s debut novel and was so absolutely thrilled with her deeply detailed characters that when I found a copy of her second book for sale at Powell’s during my trip to Portland, I didn’t hesitate in snatching it up. It was almost as if my hand had acted of its own volition; even before my mind had the opportunity to recognize Haigh’s name, I was clutching the novel and trying to figure out if I had room in my suitcase for yet another purchase.
Set immediately after the second World War, Baker Towers is centered on the Pennsylvanian coal town of Bakerton, a place full of company houses and the miscellaneous ethnic communities whose members make their living beneath the earth. One of these families is the Novaks, the story of whose Polish-Italian children Haigh so intimately tells. There’s the stubborn and coddled Lucy, the dazzling troublemaker Sandy, the primly proper Joyce, the frail and floundering Dorothy and the frustratingly ambivalent George, who flees Bakerton almost as soon as he returns from the Pacific front.
While each Novak child (how strange to call them children, as they all, during the course of the book, grow up) has a distinct personality and believable traits, it soon becomes clear that Haigh has spent the most care on the three daughters; George, and Sandy even less, are given far less preferential treatment. The reader learns of Dorothy’s yearning for love, Joyce’s desire to make a difference and Lucy’s resolute grip on the past, but what of George’s yearnings and Sandy’s desires? What do they refuse to let go of? In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. The Novak men escape Bakerton — through marriage, through careers and through death — but the Novak women, on the other hand, each leave only to return. And return they do, to a place to which they are so firmly bound, for better or for worse, exactly as though they are married to it.