Book talk: “Who By Fire,” by Diana Spechler

Who By Fire
Diana Spechler
Harper Perennial, 2008 (paperback) (ISBN 0061572934 / 9780061572937)
Fiction, 368 pages

First sentence
: At the back of the plane, twelve men bow and mumble and sway, masked by thick beards and crowned by black hats.

Book Description (summarized): When Bits and Ash were children, their younger sister was kidnapped, a tragedy that led to their family’s unraveling. Years later, Ash, who always blamed himself for Alena’s disappearance, abruptly moved to Israel to become an Orthodox Jew. By the spring of 2002, with the second Intifada at its peak, Ash’s new life has consumed him; he wants nothing to do with Bits anymore, or with their mother, Ellie. Bits, a twenty-something wild child living in Boston, who parties too much, consistently destroys her personal relationships, and seeks solace in sex, is almost willing to accept Ash’s disappearance, until she hears the news that changes everything: After thirteen years, Alena’s remains have been recovered.

Now Bits is on her way to Israel to find Ash and bring him home for Alena’s funeral. She becomes obsessed with the idea of salvaging what’s left of her family, but she approaches her mission with limited information: She doesn’t know about the secrets her mother has been keeping, about the girl who is trying to seduce Ash away from the religious life, about the struggles that her brother is having with his faith.

Comments: I don’t personally subscribe to any form of religious fundamentalism, but reading Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God several years ago did give me a little more insight into its appeal for some people. After years of self-inflicted guilt over the disappearance of his little sister Alena, Ash (Asher) Kellerman finds that the disciplined study and strictly-defined lifestyle rules of Orthodox Judaism just might give him some answers, and makes the choice to immerse himself in a Jerusalem yeshiva. This decision doesn’t go over well with the mother and older sister he left behind, and they’re both open to some pretty extreme measures to try to bring him home, although for different reasons; his sister Bits (Beatrice) fights Ash’s withdrawal from modern life, while his mother Ellie believes he’s been brainwashed into joining a cult.

Ash isn’t the only member of his family scarred by Alena’s kidnapping and presumed death, of course. His father left the family, married again, and moved to Colorado, while his mother has essentially refused to move on with her life at all. Bits has been acting out since her pre-teen years, making very few personal connections other than sexual ones. The Kellerman family has been damaged for years. The events in Who by Fire represent the long-building climax, and potentially a resolution, of a family tragedy.

The central themes here are rescue and connection, and Diana Spechler explores them through the parallel narration of Bits, Ash, and Ellie over the period of a few months in 2002. As the women in his family see it, Ash has turned to religion to rescue himself; it’s a choice they can’t understand, and although they respond in different ways, both Bits and Ellie think he needs to be rescued from religion. Everyone in this family has been needing saving from something for thirteen years, and their difficulties in communicating and connecting with one another show that it’s not just the individuals who need a rescue, it’s the family itself.

Spechler tells a compelling and unsettling story, and brings the narrative threads together in a way that I felt rang true in the end. At times I found every one of these characters frustrating, but I tend to see that as a positive thing – it usually indicates that I’m caught up in the story and wish they’d just get their acts together and figure it out. I would have liked to see more dimension and development in each of them, but then again, they might have been different characters in that case and their story would have been different as well.

This book is the January selection for the Silicon Valley Moms Group Book Club, and will be featured across the group’s member sites and its contributors’ personal blogs on January 26th. However, I had purchased my own copy before the book-club pick was announced; I just moved it up the TBR rankings so that I could read it before the online discussion.

Rating: 3.5/5

Other bloggers’ reviews:
The Boston Bibliophile
Fizzy Thoughts
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
Musings of a Bookish Kitty 
Everyday I Write the Book Blog
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Presenting Lenore 
Book Addiction

If you have reviewed this book, please leave me a link in comments or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this post to include it!

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