Friday, December 5, 2008

REVIEW: Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler

Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler. Published 2008 by Harper Perennial. Fiction.

I received this book courtesy of Jennifer at

Who By Fire is basically a family melodrama about a secular Jewish family in which a young man named Ash, now Asher, runs off to Israel to join a yeshiva (basically a school for in-depth study of the Torah) and become an Orthodox Jew. His sister Bits, who's nice but a bit messed up, and their mother Ellie, overprotective and vulnerable herself, team up to rescue him. The story goes from Boston to Jerusalem and back again. But everyone finds out that when you try to rescue someone, things don't always go the way you planned, and sometimes what you find is yourself.

Author Diana Spechler tells the story in alternating first-person narratives, shifting between the three characters. She creates compelling, believable characters with distinctive voices and personalities. The book is a fast-moving, well-crafted page-turner that I didn't want to put down.

The heart of Who By Fire is its narrators- Bits, Asher and Ellie. All three are fanatics in their own way- Asher with religion, Bits with personal drama, and Ellie with grief. The grief that ties them together, and fuels their journeys, stems from the disappearance years ago of a third sibling, little Alena, who vanished without a trace. Asher feels responsible, Bits feels lost, and Ellie feels devastated and believes that she has also just lost Asher to his new-found religious faith.

Who By Fire is a terrific read that I believe would appeal to many readers. Fans of domestic dramas, those interested in Judaism and those who enjoy character-driven books may enjoy it. Spechler broaches themes of family, love, loss and forgiveness- especially forgiving onesself. She also shows conflicts between religious and less-religious Jews, and gives some insight into the world of yeshivas as well, but the themes she addresses are universal and extend beyond the setting. She handles her characters with affection and gives the reader a lot to think about, making Who By Fire also a nice choice for book clubs. I'm glad I got around to reading it!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.