I met Diana Spechler, author of Who By Fire, at Book Group Expo back in October. I was impressed because she held her own being the only other author on a panel with Andre Dubus III, who many people thought was a pompous windbag, but I thought was just fascinating. I would have bought her debut novel Who By Fire at the Expo, but it was all sold out when I finally broke down and looked at the books being sold by Books, Inc. Being sold out at the Expo, I thought, was probably good and bad. Good: everyone wanted your book! Bad: no more books to sell! Diana agreed to have her publisher send me a copy after I gushed about how much I enjoyed her panel with Andre Dubus III.
I think the relationship between authors and readers is symbiotic. I haven’t decided if that’s a good or a bad thing, since books are my “drug of choice” and authors keep pushing their stash on me. Good or bad, I’m not complaining.
Who By Fire is about a family that fell apart when the youngest in the family, Alena, was kidnapped. Alena was never found, and her kidnapping has left everyone broken, in one way or another. Ash, the middle child, blames himself for Alena’s kidnapping, and is trying to find peace in Orthodox Judaism, going so far as to move to Israel to live in a yeshiva. Bits (short for Beatrice), the oldest, has yet to find peace, but makes due with promiscuity. Their dad is long gone, re-married and raising a new family. Ellie, their mom, intent on getting her family back together, is dating a man who’s had luck at deprogramming people in cults and has promised he can get Ash back, but he needs her money to do so.
The story is told from alternating points of view; Bits, Ash, and Ellie all tell a portion of the story, of their story, and while it took a little getting used to, you quickly get immersed in the story and seamlessly read from one narrator to the other.
The characters were great. They’re all extremely flawed, and watching Bits in particular is akin to watching a car wreck. She makes one bad decision after another, and while her intentions are ultimately noble (she needs to convince her brother to come back for Alena’s funeral as they’ve recently found her remains), she certainly makes a lot of mistakes before she starts learning and changing.
One thing I thought the author hit on beautifully is that the things people remember about their childhood are often skewed. Here’s an example:
Ash and I sat at the kitchen table, our heads roating from parent to parent. Our father said, “I can’t take this.” He said, “Kids, your mother and I don’t love each other anymore.” In my memory, he’s cheerful when he says it, as if he’s telling us to get packed for Disneyland….”
And here’s how Ash remembers the same morning:
(Ash is asking himself, “Who, besides God, deserves my loyalty?”) My father, the opposite of Moses, who shed his family like a scratchy sweater, who, the morning he decided to leave us, the morning my mother threw a spatula at him, turned to Bits and me and said, “Kids, I don’t love you anymore”? (Bits always tells me I’m wrong; she swears he said that he and our mother didn’t love each other anymore, but I don’t know…I remember what I remember.)
I really enjoyed this book. I understood where each character was coming from and I enjoyed watching the characters develop and evolve.
This would make a great book club pick. Themes and discussion topics abound that I think would encourage people to talk about their own families and their own childhoods, such as forgiveness, parental abandonment, the relationship that siblings have, and how people handle a crisis differently, just to name a few. It’s books like this that really bring a book club to life.
I don’t doubt that Diana Spechler will be hugely successful. This debut novel has garnered critical praise, and she has a drive common amongst the successful. I look forward to reading more from her.
Rating: 90 out of 100
Other (probably better) reviews:
Guest posts the author has done: