Jennifer Haigh's News from Heaven, a series of 10 interconnected short stories set in the fictional Bakerton, Pennsylvania, of her celebrated 2005 novel Baker Towers (it's subtitled "The Bakerton Stories"), stretches over much of the 20th century. Often told from the perspective of women, the stories don't have bad guys or good guys, just people trying to make the best of things. Bakerton itself becomes one of the characters, going from a booming mining town to a declining former mining town, and then gradually finding its feet again towards the end of the 20th century once a prison opens there. Any port in a storm, right?
NEWS FROM HEAVEN By Jennifer Haigh :: Harper :: 256 pages :: $25.99
The women of News are frequently shy, plain, and secretive. They love wholeheartedly but sometimes unwisely. A number of the stories seem to be building toward a catastrophic ending, but Haigh is not interested in melodrama. Instead, she builds quiet, full-imagined lives for each of her characters, letting them make their mistakes but not be ruined by them. You might occasionally confuse some of these women, and overall it can be difficult to keep straight the various intermixing families. Be careful: that recurring last name probably belongs to a sibling or nephew of the character you're remembering.
Still, it's a pleasure to spend time with each of them, and something of a relief that there aren't too many volcanic tempers or noisy confrontations. That's not to say the characters lack passion, only that they are overall realists, with pragmatic attitudes toward their lives. If you find yourself wishing for a bit more of the young Polish woman working as a maid to a Jewish family during the '40s, or the glamorous aunt who visits the town only briefly, it's a sign of the skill with which Haigh builds a miniature world for each of them that you can accept that your glimpse of their lives is complete.
JENNIFER HAIGH :: Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline :: January 30 :: 7 pm :: free :: 617.566.6660 or brooklinebooksmith.com