Book of the Week: Heat and Light – Jennifer Haigh

Like the very best novels (and this is one of our very best this year), it’s hard pin down what makes Heat and Light so breathtaking, so lovely, so heartbreaking. When I was selling it in to stores, I tried hard not to start with the broad strokes of the plot, “This is a story about fracking in rural western Pennsylvania….” Plot can make people close down: We all know that story, we all have our opinion on it.

But the plot is not entirely the point here. So it’s tempting to find a way in to talking about it through character. The writers who can tell us something exquisite and particular about an individual human life often seem few and far between. And likewise hard to talk about. Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, Tess Hadley are ones that come to mind.

So how to explain why this book is so very satisfying? Perhaps by noting that through some kind of writerly alchemy, it is more than the sum of its parts.

The effect is a little like standing very close to a pointillist painting then stepping back. At first, up close, you’re absorbed by the color and particularity; stepping back you see those individual details coalesce into something larger and more meaningful that you could have imaged.

In this book Haigh paints on a much larger canvas than past bestsellers like Mrs. Kimble, The Condition and Faith and accomplishes something remarkable: She shows us the long, uneasy relationship between institutions and individuals in America—the interconnection of corporations and the real people whose lives are caught in the churn of history.

Coverage at on sale is slated in The New Yorker, People and The Washington Post—and Lynn Neary will interview Haigh for NPR.

“Haigh shows a nimble hand at writing nuanced, realistically flawed characters….The novel is not an environmental treatise masked as fiction; rather, it’s a perfectly paced rendering of the intertwined characters’ personal stories. Haigh smoothly switches between past and present, fully exposing that, indeed, the past is not even past. (Flashbacks set during the Three Mile Island accident are particularly engrossing.) This is a must-read…ripe for discussion.”
Booklist (starred review)

Heat & Light is a many-voiced and multi-faceted portrait of a place–small-town, fracking-bound Pennsylvania–and its people: pastors and farmers, environmentalists and drill rig workers, prison guards and their prisoners. The book is wildly ambitious–spanning more than thirty years, its many events seen through the eyes of a dozen different characters–and just as wildly successful. In prose that zips and smarts, taut and electric, Haigh renders every one of her many characters in all their moving and human complexity. The result is a fully realized world, and an unforgettable novel.”
— Mairead Small Staid, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

“Any really good book is hard to paraphrase in a few words. But this is a wonderful book. Haigh illuminates an entire world; her characters so finely drawn, so full of flaws, so ordinary yet so extraordinary. ‘An unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system. Was there a better description of life?’ In one line she encapsulates all these people’s lives, the big business of the gas companies, the past and present and the hopes of all these people. It is not only a portrait of a part of forgotten America, it is a telling portrait of us in the 21st century. I loved every minute of this book.”
— Michael Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

“With her riveting prose and vivid characters, Jennifer Haigh had me from the beginning in this thought-provoking tale of greed, power and the humanity in us all.”
— Kathy Schultenover, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

Heat and Light achieves pure novelistic virtuosity. It’s brilliant beginning to end.”
— Richard Ford

Heat and Light is a stunning book, a grand book, a book of old-fashioned power and scale….It works on a wide canvas and contains, before the final curtain closes, all the pleasures of the 19th-century social novel, but with a conspicuous lack of easy moralizing. Just as all politics is local, so Haigh knows that all good fiction is personal, with the texture of the specific, and she writes prose with the spine in mind. This is an unsparing book, and one that sings.”
— Joshua Ferris

Heat and Light is a riveting panoramic tale keying in on the lives impacted by Big Energy’s ceaseless feeding frenzy. In the spirit of Don DeLillo’s UnderworldHeat and Light is a greyhound of a novel; smart, sharp, hyper precise, and near incantatory in its momentum.”
— Richard Price

Heat and Light (9780061763298) by Jennifer Haigh. $26.99 hardcover. 5/3/16 one day laydown.

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