Monday, January 26, 2009

What I'm Reading -- SV Moms Book Club: Who by Fire by Diana Spechler

Like every parent in the world, I have thought about the horrible "what if" of losing a child. I lock my doors, fear strangers beyond a reasonable level, and tend to have a near cardiac arrest every time the PG&E man appears in my backyard on his way to read the gas meter. And like most parents I know, my internal pendulum swings wildly between my urge to "helicopter parent" and my strong dislike of overparenting. If it's morning, I'll decide to let the kids play in the backyard unsupervised. By afternoon, I'm kicking myself because my 2-year old ends up with a black eye.

I just finished reading the fictional novel "Who by Fire" for the my bloggers book club with SVMoms. I had a hard time putting it down and stayed up way past my bedtime for more nights than I should have. The book has complicated, sarcastic, funny-yet-empathetic characters and a brisk plot. It also touches on themes that strike a chord with me right now: religion, loss, parenting, sexuality, and growing up. It made me ask myself a lot of questions like how would we cope with the loss of a child? What if our little girl got into a stranger's car one day and we never saw her again? What is an appropriate role for religion in our lives? When does fervent religious belief cross the line and become a cult?

Interestingly, the story begins about fifteen years after the tragic kidnapping of the family's youngest daughter. So the horror of that day, and of the months and years that immediately followed are not seen by the reader but they are felt. They have scarred the family members in ways that surprised me. If I think about what would become of me if my own child was kidnapped, I draw a blank. I see a void. I can't begin to imagine how I would carry on or how it would scar, deform or ruin the lives of the rest of my family.

In the book, Ash, the older brother, ends up becoming a devout Jew and joining a Yeshiva in Israel. His sister, Bits, loses herself in risky sex with strangers. The parents divorce. The book moves back and forth between Israel and the United States as well as between the web of relations between the characters, who seem at first to have grown surprisingly distant from each other as they cope in their own unhealthy ways with their loss.

Reading this book reminded me of some important lessons that I seem to learn, and learn and then learn again in my own life. Not to judge. Not to be complacent or take relationships for granted. Get help when you need it. Find the balance between vigilance with your kids and letting them grow up and away from you. In the end, I got a lot more out of this book than mere bedtime reading.

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