Fereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.
While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.
If you’re familiar with Jennifer Haigh, you’re probably familiar with the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s the setting of two of her previous books, Baker Towers and News from Heaven; the books span generations as they follow the town’s residents through the coal mining boom and bust.
In Heat & Light, another form of energy production dangles promises of wealth to the residents of Bakerton. Unlike before, when men spent the strongest years of their lives breathing coal dust only to die of cancer and black lung down the road, all this generation has to do is sign a lease to allow fracking on their land, then sit back and wait for their checks to arrive.
Of course, knowing what we now do about hydraulic fracking — the earthquakes, the razed land, the tap water you can set on fire — it’s not that simple. Most of the residents don’t know this. When they’re approached by Dark Energy and told stories of the Marcellus Shale and the ocean of wealth they’re sitting on, most of them can’t wait to sign up. The town has been dying ever since the coal mines closed, and the remaining residents are struggling to survive.
Living beyond their means, Kyung Cho and his wife, Gillian, are now drowning in debt. By all outward appearances, they seem modestly successful: Kyung has a PhD and teaches at a university, and they live in the second most desirable neighborhood in a Boston suburb, just down the hill from the wealthiest area, where Kyung’s parents live. In reality, their marriage is strained and all of their credit cards are maxed out; buying even the most basic necessities is a strain on their limited resources. The time has come to face reality and sell their home.
The realtor’s assessment is another blow: with the terrible housing market, they wouldn’t get enough from the sale of the house to clear their debts. It would be wiser to rent their place out and wait until the market gets better. It makes the most sense for the family to move in with Kyung’s parents, whose home is large enough to accommodate everyone. But Kyung, who has done the bare minimum to give the appearance of a good Korean son, can’t bring himself to take that most logical step. He harbors inexplicable resentment toward his parents that even Gillian does not know about.
Although they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Molly and Michèle have the type of close friendship that picks up right where they left off the last time they saw each other. As film critics turned film producers, the two see each other a few times a year at industry events and talk on the phone all the time. When Michèle gets a phone call that Molly has suffered an aneurism and is now in a deep coma, she’s distraught.
Months pass in which friends and family wait to see the full extent of the damage the aneurism caused. The longer Molly is in a coma, the less likely it is that she’ll have a positive prognosis. She finally does wake, but she’s just not the same.
Told in a series of letters from Michèle to Molly, Mon amie américaine explores the boundaries of friendship. Before the aneurism, Molly was the life of the party. In her work, she had the instincts and confidence to excel. These were things people loved about her. Michèle, though happily settled with her family, saw herself and Molly as equals who made different choices in life: if she had decided not to get married, she’d be living like Molly; if Molly had decided to get married, she’d be living like Michèle. Families aside, they were the same and that’s what made them click.
Maeve Fanning and her mother, a widowed Irish immigrant, live in Boston’s impoverished North End. It’s the 1930s and jobs are scarce. Maeve’s mother works long hours as a seamstress and hopes that she’ll one day be promoted to saleswoman, but she knows that’s unlikely; no one would hire an Irish salesperson. As such, all of her hopes are pinned on Maeve to succeed.
A while back, Maeve left her beau and suddenly moved to New York City to start a new life. She tells her mother she’s working for an eccentric millionaire, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: she relishes her newfound freedom, develops a taste for the nightlife…and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. She returns to Boston humiliated and determined to keep The Thing that happened in New York a secret.
With the Great Depression worsening, jobs have gotten even more scarce in the North End since Maeve first left. She hears of a job opening at an antiques shop, but she’s in a similar situation as her mother: a high-end shop that caters to Boston’s elite would never hire someone Irish, and Maeve’s name and beautiful red hair are dead giveaways. With a bottle of peroxide, some wardrobe finagling, and considerable pluck, May Fanning now passes herself off as a well-bred woman from Albany. She’s hired, and in the course of her work runs into Diana Van der Laar, a beautiful and troubled socialite who had also been hospitalized in New York. Maeve is terrified about her secret being revealed, but Diana is impishly thrilled. The two settle into a whirlwind friendship, but it’s a high stakes situation for Maeve, who is constantly trying to hide her impoverished Irish roots from her new acquaintances.