When I went to went to go hear Sharon Draper talk about the book she wrote after she wrote Out of My Mind, she said her new one had been hard to write because so many people had called Out of My Mind her “best book ever.” “How,” she asked, “do you write the next book after you’ve written the best book ever?”
I’m afraid Jennifer Haigh has the same problem. In 427 pages, she has created an epic for our times. Populated by the inextricably linked small town characters she has used in her other novels, Heat and Light takes as its central plot the impact of fracking on a small town in Pennsylvania. To Haigh’s enormous credit, she tells the story of many different points of view and uses many different time periods, and what she ends up with is not an anti-fracking diatribe, but a well-balanced examination of the choices people make that they never thought they’d have to confront.
How will the novel stand up in 20 years? I’m not sure. It depends on what’s happening in the fracking world. The point is that it stands up quite well now; it is important, more than say, Hillbilly Elegy. You want to understand the world today, read this. You want to understand people – the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – read this. I hated and loved every single one of these characters.
I don’t envy Haigh’s task of following this book. It is, I suspect, a nice problem to have.