Speed of Light [NOOK Book]

Overview

Every family has a story. Every story, eventually, must be told.

For most of their lives, Julian Perel and his sister, Paula, lived in a house cast in silence, witnesses to a father struggling with a devastating secret too painful to share. Though their father took his demons to the grave, his past refuses to rest.

As adults, brother and sister struggle to find their ...
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Speed of Light

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Overview

Every family has a story. Every story, eventually, must be told.

For most of their lives, Julian Perel and his sister, Paula, lived in a house cast in silence, witnesses to a father struggling with a devastating secret too painful to share. Though their father took his demons to the grave, his past refuses to rest.

As adults, brother and sister struggle to find their voices. A scientist governed by numbers and logic, Julian now lives an ordered life of routine and seclusion. My father gave up his language and his homeland. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin. It was mine now. In contrast, Paula has entered the world as eagerly as Julian retracts from it. An aspiring opera singer, she is always moving, buoyant with sound. Singing was the only gift I could offer to my father. I filled the house with music. I tried to give him joy. . . .

Yet both their lives begin to change on a Wednesday, miercoles, the day that sounds like miracles. Before embarking on a European opera tour, Paula asks her housekeeper, Sola, to stay at her place--and to look after Julian in the apartment above. Yet Sola, too, has a story. I want to clean myself like the window of a house, make myself clear for things to pass through. Flat and quiet.

As Paula uncovers pieces of her father's early life in Budapest and the horrifying truth of his past, Julian bears witness to Sola's story--revelations that help all three learn how to both surrender and revere the shadows that have followed them for so long.

The Speed of Light is a powerful debut about three unforgettable souls who overcome the tragedies of the past to reconnect with one another and the world around them. In an extraordinary accomplishment, Elizabeth Rosner has created a novel of love and redemption that proves the pain of the untold story is far greater than even the most difficult truth.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Acclaimed poet Elizabeth Rosner turns her hand to fiction in this compelling debut novel of remembrance, in which the sorrows of the past inspire the story of the present.
Richard Ford
The Speed of Light is an elegant, meticulous, and quite subtle novel about lives lived at a remove from, but forever connected to, tragedy--the camps. Ms. Rosner's imaginative aim, of course, is to show us great human importance where we might've thought it didn't reside, and to change us with this knowledge. She certainly succeeds.
Chitra Ranertee Divakaruni
A resonating novel about silence and sharing, about the mystery and pain of the past and how it must be reclaimed. Beautifully written, in images that sing in our ears long after we've put the book down.
Nicholas Delbanco
Rilke memorably defined art as exactness, a hatred of the vague, and by that definition The Speed of Light is poetry sustained. The precision of the language here, the structural arrangements and the deft evocation of character in history all herald a genuine talent--not so much emerging as achieved. Ms. Rosner's debut novel turns sorrow into song.
Tova Mirvis
With its symphony of voices, The Speed of Light tells a haunting story of loss and redemption. It is beautifully written and utterly affecting.
Beverly Donofrio
Elizabeth Rosner touches a chord deep down where our fears are buried, then makes that chord vibrate and hum until magic happens and it sings. I loved this book. It entered my dreams.
Joseph Berger
Elizabeth Rosner has written a lyrical and absorbing novel whose power is enriched by its understatement. This uncommon story not only probes how children wrestle with the silence handed down to them by a silent father cursed with inexhaustible sorrow, but it also tells us of the healing magic of love and does so through a marvelous and unusual character--a Latino housekeeper--who will find an enduring spot in readers' hearts.
Publishers Weekly
The adult children of a holocaust survivor learn about grief, forgiveness and the power of bearing witness from a Latina housekeeper who has also been victimized by government-sponsored genocide in a dark, subtle novel by poet Rosner. Julian and Paula Perel grew up with a somber, uncommunicative father still shell-shocked by his years in Auschwitz. Now with both parents dead, the siblings share a house in Berkeley, Calif. Julian, a recluse, lives an obsessive routine with 11 TVs in various states of disrepair to fend off the sadness that he calls his father's legacy. When Paula, an opera singer as adventurous as her brother is shy, heads to Europe to audition for opera houses and become a star, she asks her housekeeper, Sola Ordinaio, to care for her apartment and to keep an eye on Julian, whose elaborate rituals govern his life. A wary friendship blossoms between Sola and Julian, and deepens when Sola confesses that she is the only surviving witness of the Mexican government's massacre of her small village. Meanwhile, in Budapest, Paula traces the Perel family's roots and finds someone who tells her a horrible secret about Jacob Perel's time in Auschwitz. Paula feels her confidence faltering and cancels her last auditions to return to Berkeley. There, she finds Julian, with Sola's help, emerging from the emotional paralysis of his life and decides that she will not allow the tragedies of the past to silence him. The emotional impact of Rosner's material is considerable, but her schematic method of alternating the three voices of her protagonists makes the symmetries between their stories a little too neat. Still, the catharsis is moving, and the final affirmation of life, love and art toerase tragedy is uplifting. Agent, Joelle Delbourgo. 8-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's hard not to like this lyrical, gently paced debut that confronts the terrible legacy carried by children of trauma and tragedy. Paula Perel and her older brother Julian bear the anguish of their father's Holocaust memories in vastly different ways: Paula sublimates her personality by becoming a professional singer of lieder (although forbidden by her father to sing in German), while Julian, a grad student in physics, retreats into the antisocial and deafening silence of his "eleven" TV sets. Now orphaned and living on their own on two floors of a Berkeley apartment, Paula must leave on a Grand Tour to make a name for herself in Europe; she invites her cleaning lady, Sola Ordonio, to stay and keep an eye on her paranoid, solitary brother, who lives upstairs. Sola, a 30ish political refugee from an unnamed South American country where, years before, she witnessed the massacre of her family, brings Julian his lunch and picks up plates. Gradually, the sympathy between the two emotionally diffident characters grows. Rosner takes excruciating pains to weave the threads of her narrative in alternating points of view, and the slow-moving action back in forth in time is examined in many tireless facets. Rosner has an expert command of her material (she herself is the child of Holocaust survivors), from the Hungarian Jewish father's past as a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz and Sola's terrifying memories of witness to the nuances of opera singing. And everywhere poet Rosner exhibits her care in the use of language, such as the comparison of a piano, its cover closed and keys hidden, to a woman "ashamed to show her teeth when she smiles." A thoughtful, earnest first novel: it doesn't takeany risks but sticks faithfully to its affecting mark.
From the Publisher
"The Speed of Light is an elegant, meticulous, and quite subtle novel about lives lived at a remove from, but forever connected to, tragedy--the camps. Ms. Rosner's imaginative aim, of course, is to show us great human importance where we might've thought it didn't reside, and to change us with this knowledge. She certainly succeeds."
--RICHARD FORD

"A resonating novel about silence and sharing, about the mystery and pain of the past and how it must be reclaimed. Beautifully written, in images that sing in our ears long after we've put the book down."
--CHITRA RANERTEE DIVAKARUNI
Author of The Mistress of Spices and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

"Rilke memorably defined art as exactness, a hatred of the vague, and by that definition The Speed of Light is poetry sustained. The precision of the language here, the structural arrangements and the deft evocation of character in history all herald a genuine talent--not so much emerging as achieved. Ms. Rosner's debut novel turns sorrow into song."
--NICHOLAS DELBANCO
Author of What Remains

"With its symphony of voices, The Speed of Light tells a haunting story of loss and redemption. It is beautifully written and utterly affecting."
--TOVA MIRVIS
Author of The Ladies Auxiliary

"Elizabeth Rosner touches a chord deep down where our fears are buried, then makes that chord vibrate and hum until magic happens and it sings. I loved this book. It entered my dreams."
--BEVERLY DONOFRIO
Author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking For Mary

"Elizabeth Rosner has written a lyrical and absorbing novel whose power is enriched by its understatement. This uncommon story not only probes how children wrestle with the silence handed down to them by a silent father cursed with inexhaustible sorrow, but it also tells us of the healing magic of love and does so through a marvelous and unusual character--a Latino housekeeper--who will find an enduring spot in readers' hearts."
--JOSEPH BERGER
Author of Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307417411
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 319,055
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Rosner is a graduate of Stanford University and received a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Poetry East, Southern Poetry Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

The changes began on a Wednesday, miércoles, the day that sounds like miracles.

My younger and only sister, Paula, had gone away, leaving the apartment directly below mine to test the reach of her voice. I stayed behind, with my eleven televisions, waiting for her to come back.

I was teaching myself not to feel.

In the room with the televisions, there were no voices: I had silenced them all. Instead I heard: a clock that ticked like a snapping twig; the hum and push of cars passing on the street; a neighbor’s dog barking at the arrival of mail; the refrigerator purring; my own breath, in and out. All the rhythms, in and out. And inside my head: a melody from before, when my sister trained her voice to soar, when I listened to the notes float and resonate. I believed sometimes that I could see them.

Paula was auditioning, sending her hopeful music into the arms of Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna—places I had never seen and never expected to. I lived in the safe embrace of my apartment, whose windows overlooked a park and a playground and a street.

I had collected broken televisions and fixed them, one by one, sometimes guessing at the way to put things back together. I had no manuals to follow, no map. I made good guesses, I had a feel for those things, a kind of blind instinct. In the end, they all worked, although the colors were never exactly right. Some were always a little too green, others a little too violet. It didn’t matter. The scratchy growl of their voices didn’t matter either, because I often kept them very quiet. I spent most of my time watching the images, letting them tell me stories. I let themdistract me from every terrible truth until nothing touched me at all.

It was never a decision, never something I asked for. It simply belonged to me, like a second skin. No. Like my only skin. There was no choice, no letting go. And if there had been the chance to refuse?

If I’d been asked?

I would still say yes.

It was my father’s grief. It was what he gave to me, his only son. He didn’t mean to, but it came to me without his permission. He gave up his language and his homeland, everything he could leave behind. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin like blood. It wasn’t his fault. He would have taken it back if he could. But it was mine now, as if I had lived it all.

At times, even my dreams felt inherited, as if someone else had owned them first. There would be dogs barking, murderous voices in the distance, smoke filling the dark air.

His actual stories I never heard. My father held all the shards of glass inside, where the edges cut him to pieces. When he looked at me, it was not so much into my eyes as through them, as if I were a clear window to the past. I looked back at him, I listened to the wordless dark. What else could I do? I believed this was what I was here for, to be the receiver of that gaze, to swallow it completely. The broken glass? I swallowed that too.

Here is what I knew how to do: how to get away. How to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing. My voice was a ticket of escape, one way to anywhere but where I was. I tried to take my brother, Julian, with me, to help him escape too, but it was more weight than I could carry. Only one of us could make it out alive. I didn’t choose myself, not exactly, but the truth was, I had a ticket and he didn’t. I had to use it or die.

“I’m going away for a while,” Paula had announced the previous Monday over lunch. For once she didn’t try to prepare me for a shock. “I’m taking myself on a Grand Tour,” she explained, her arms flourishing, “hoping some opera company will give me a chance. According to my agent, I’m going to become quite famous.” She sighed a little, eager or worried, I couldn’t be sure.

“When?” I asked.

She came over to my chair and wrapped her slender arms around herself wishing, I knew, that she could hug me with them but knowing I couldn’t bear it.

“I’ll miss you too,” she whispered, not looking at me. Then, in another voice she added, “I leave this Wednesday, early in the morning.” She struck a dramatic pose, one arm up and one to the side, her head thrown back to expose her ivory neck. “I’ll write you postcards,” she said.

I would place them beneath my pillow and memorize them in my sleep. I would dream in languages I’d never heard.

At the door of my apartment, leaving, Paula stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “What’s it like, Julian? What’s it like to live inside your body?” She leaned against the door frame, frowning a little, waiting for me to answer.

I aimed my gaze above her head, at the place where the wall met the ceiling. In two days she would be gone. “It’s very quiet,” I said.

“Quiet,” she repeated softly. From the corner of my eye I could see her frown grow deeper. She didn’t know what I was talking about.

“What’s inside yours?” I asked her.

She shrugged and said, “Music.”

I nodded. “Think of plants,” I said. “They’re breathing and growing, eating and drinking. We just can’t hear them.”

Paula looked at me, and I tried to look back, tried to stay right there with her. She was far enough away that I couldn’t see the color of her eyes.

“No wonder you have to be so careful,” she said. “They’d have you for breakfast out there.”

“Who?” I asked, although I knew who.

“All of them,” Paula said, shaking her head. “Every goddamn one.”

Every goddamn one, I silently repeated. Then out loud I said, “I wonder what I’d taste like,” and Paula flashed that wide-open smile of hers.

“Like sweet potatoes,” she said.

“In bocca al lupo,” I said to Julian before I left. Mouth of the wolf. It was backstage code from the Italians, their way of saying break a leg. I blew a kiss into the air, not aiming at his face but somewhere high, over his head, where he wouldn’t be afraid of it.

“Forget the wolf,” he said back to me the way he was supposed to, the signal for courage and faith. But Julian needed it more than I did. He must have thought I was always leaving him, as if it were easy for me. I opened doors and slammed them behind me, never letting myself check if anything had cracked from the blow.

On the morning of Paula’s flight to Europe, I stood by the window in the early light and watched a white taxicab pull up in front of our building. Paula stood beside the trunk while the driver loaded her luggage, and a breeze lifted the ends of her dark green scarf as she turned to look up at my window. Her lips were painted the color of raspberries. She waved and smiled, tucking the scarf into the collar of her coat. I put my hand flat against the smooth glass and held it there. Paula disappeared behind the opaque windows of the taxi, and then the taxi disappeared too. Below me, the ginkgo tree was full of green, fluttering its fan-shaped leaves.

I adjusted all the sets, fine-tuning their brightness and vertical hold, wiping the electric dust from their screens. I turned up the volume for a while, filling my room with too many voices, all of them and none of them talking to me. Inside, where I lived, it was still very quiet.

My earliest memory is the sound of crying—my father waking up from a nightmare. Or was it my brother? A nameless sobbing in the dark. Julian told me I cooed like a bird before I learned to speak; I made my mouth into an O and I began, with no reason, to sing.

When I was still very young, before my mother died, we kept a pair of canaries in a cage by the kitchen window; at night, the cage was covered with a towel. Such a simple script: In the daylight, they sang, and at night, they slept. I used to wonder if they knew that outside the window lay a world they could never reach.

At exactly one o’clock on that Wednesday of Paula’s departure, a cola-skinned woman came to my door with a lunch tray. I had been warned by my sister to expect her; Paula knew better than to surprise me twice in one week. Still, though I’d already unlatched the door for her, I felt unprepared for her arrival, needing to back away and sit again in my leather chair. I was holding my breath, waiting for her to go away.

Standing in the doorway, before she entered the apartment, she took a slow look around. I found out later that she was taking photographs in her mind of where everything belonged, even me in my chair, even the way the cords of the televisions snaked across the floor. She was taking care of Paula’s apartment for the month, and she was bringing me a sandwich for lunch. Paula had shown her just how much mustard to spread, just how to place the pieces of cut bread on the plate, how to fold the napkin. Without the design on the plate I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even take a bite.

He could drown in a glass of water, the woman thought.

It was what she told me much later, that this was her first thought when she saw me. But what she said out loud was, “My name is Sola.”

I guessed her to be close to Paula’s age, maybe thirty, but I wasn’t about to study her face, even from safely across the room. Instead, I imagined myself as she must have seen me: pale and elongated, my brown hair unevenly trimmed, my disheveled clothing, my sleeves too short, exposing my bony wrists. On Paula, the related features were so photogenic: liquid blue eyes and a full-smiling mouth, a heart-shaped face, brown hair that fell in a sweet disorder of waves. In mirrors I had discovered that my own version was blurrier, less coherent, stretched too far. Behind my glasses, I felt Sola watch me.

She offered the tray to me exactly the way Paula must have shown her. She didn’t even try to look me in the eye when she introduced herself, and I was grateful. I thought Paula must have told her that too.

Did I need to say that my name was Julian? I decided it wasn’t necessary, so I said nothing and began to eat my sandwich. Avocado and Swiss. Sola walked toward the kitchen to collect Paula’s dishes from the week before. As always, I’d washed and dried and stacked them beside the sink, with the silverware wrapped in a paper towel on top of the pile. I heard Sola’s footsteps pause, begin again, and then stop.

“Excuse me,” she said, forcing me to turn around in my seat. I saw her eyebrows lifting on her forehead, her mouth stretched into an almost-smile. She was holding the pile of dishes out in front of her, her brown hands dark against the white ceramic. “You do not have to wash these,” she said. “I can come back later and do them downstairs with my own washing up.”

This was her first mistake, although I knew she meant well. I shook my head, my mouth full of sandwich. She had an accent I couldn’t quite place. I chewed and swallowed, completing what I had begun, and turned back to take a gulp of water. Still turned away from her, I thought about how many words it would take to explain things.

“I like to,” I told her.

I think she said “Oh,” and then she did a surprising thing: She laughed. It was very quiet, but I heard the flutter in her throat. I thought a long time afterwards about that laugh. There was a song buried inside it, or a story. Maybe both.

At first I am at Paula’s apartment once a week to clean, which is easy because even though she seems not to care about how she scatters her clothing and leaves piles of papers around the rooms, in fact there is a kind of order in her mess. Once I learn her system, once I memorize each room, I am able to clean around her things without disturbing them. When I am finished, it is like nothing is changed but looks like everything belongs exactly where it is.

She gives me my own key because most of the time when I come on Friday afternoons she is somewhere else, singing. The first time I see her brother, Julian, he is on the sidewalk in front of the building, staring for maybe half an hour at a tree twice as high as his head. I am cleaning Paula’s living room, and I see him from the window.

Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Rosner
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Interviews & Essays

Richard Zimler's most recent novels are The Angelic Darkness and
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which has been a bestseller in eleven coun-
tries. His new novel, Hunting Midnight, will be published by Delacorte
Press in July 2003. He lives in Porto, Portugal, and teaches journalism at
the University of Porto. His Web site is www.zimler.com.
RZ: Novels sometime begin wtih one particular image, idea, or conflict that won't let the author go, that forces him or her to start on the project. What about The Speed of Light first gave you that sense of urgency and purpose?
ER: The very first image that appeared to me, more than eleven
years ago, was an image of an apartment with Julian and his
wall of televisions. I had no idea who he was or why he had
all of those TV sets, but I was completely intrigued to find
out. Somehow I also knew he had a sister living downstairs,
and it was their relationship I wanted to explore. What kind of
family had they come from, what blessings and what damage did
they carry because of that family? I was particularly compelled
by my sense that these two siblings had responded very differ-
ently to their history, and yet it was their shared history that
connected them. I wrote a very short story about Julian and his
sister, then called Pomona, but on some level I knew that they
were characters I wanted to develop in a much fuller way.
When I decided to try to write the novel, I found that the ques-
tion of Julian's extreme introversion kept haunting me. At first
I explored the idea he was the son of a Vietnam veteran who
had been scarred by some type of post-traumatic stress dis-
order.Eventually, with a kind of slow dawning, I realized that
his family history had to be based on something I knew very
intimately, which was the inheritance that came with being a
daughter of Holocaust survivors.
RZ: What kinds of feelings did you have about Julian at the beginning?
ER: The very first words I heard him saying to me were, "I was
teaching myself not to feel." And I felt great compassion for him,
because there is some part of me that recognizes his suffering and
his desire for numbness. I also felt it was the depth of his sensi-
tivity that made him compelling. Pomona became Paula when I
began to take seriously the idea of her music as the opposite of Ju-
lian's silence. As I have always imagined how much courage it
would take to be a singer, I wanted to see for myself what my
imagination could do with that role. I even took voice lessons to
feel my own body learning how to find the source of breath and
sound.
RZ: So Sola was the last of the three main characters to come to you?
ER: Yes, I felt strongly that I needed a third character, someone who
would influence and change my other two characters, but at first
I thought she would be a Holocaust survivor herself. Gradually
I began to understand that this person needed to come from a
time and place that would expand the story. When Sola came to
life, when I could hear her accent and her way of expressing her-
self, I felt the novel truly begin to take shape.
RZ: In addition to the narratives provided by Julian, Paula, and Sola, Julian's scientific definitions serve as a kind of fourth voice. How did the idea for them come from you?
ER: At one point early on, when I was trying to figure out how
Julian supported himself, I thought he worked as a freelance
TV repairman! But then I wanted to explore more of his intel-
lect, and started getting excited about him being a scientific ge-
nius of some kind. I heard someone talking about extreme ultra-
violet astrophysics, and then found myself in my parents's house,
drawn toward shelf after shelf of science books belonging to
my father. The language of science began to dazzle me with its
metaphors. I was astonished to realize that scientific language
wasn't cold and detached, but that it could be evocative and full
of implied meaning.
RZ: Yes, each reader can interpret Julian's definitions in his or her own way. Was keeping some of the meaning of the book open in this way important to you?
ER: One of the joys of reading, for me, includes the experience of in-
terpreting what I read, finding subtleties, and openings I can ex-
plore. I hope that readers of my novel will be similarly willing to
discover their own connections and associations. With regard
specifically to the definitions, I actually wondered if some people
might think they needed to understand all the science in order to
understand the book. But my wish, of course, is that the science
will be a window through which they might find new ways of
seeing the characters and their interactions.
RZ: Balancing the interweaving narratives must have been a big challenge. What was that process like?
ER: What emerged as I wrote the book was a kind of faith. I had to
trust my inner listening-to allow the voice of each character
to speak to me for as long as he or she spoke. Then either another
character would interrupt and I would switch, or else there
would be a stretch of silence. I had to be very patient and accept
that the story would unfold as the characters revealed them-
selves; that the narration would carry all three of them forward
at their own pace. For a long time I just wrote pieces, not quite
knowing how the novel would all fit together. Then there were
months during which I had to try to arrange the puzzle into a
pattern that made sense.
RZ: Julian and Paula tell their stories in the past tense, but Sola uses the present tense. Why? What advantages did that give you and her?
ER: It was relatively late in the writing process that I decided to keep
all of Sola's sections in present tense. It suddenly seemed so right
for her, to be able to use language to remind herself of being in
the present moment, and to echo the way she uses her sense of
touch to keep herself present. I also felt this was a way of keep-
ing myself tuned in to her nonnative English. She is such an im-
portant teacher for me, the way she is able to balance the burdens
of her past with her willingness to keep experiencing life in all
of its complexity.
RZ: Sola does indeed want to remain in the present tense, but the past has a very strong gravitational pull on her, just as it does on Julian and Paula. Did you feel that pull lessen on yourself as you finished the book? Did writing it free you in some way?
ER: Well, yes and no. In some sense I've found that I am more at ease
with my history, almost as if writing the novel allowed me some
breathing room to ask some of the what-if questions that have
been on my mind for so many years. For example, with the char-
acter of Paula, I was able to ask myself, What if I had resisted the
pull of my family's sadness? Would I be any better off? The
novel helped me affirm that in fact I feel richer and more com-
plete because of that legacy. Strangely, though, I feel that writing
this novel has also led me even further into a journey of self-
exploration by way of the past. My current novel-in-progress
also seems to be evolving in that direction-I'm once again
working with characters who are profoundly shaped by their
own as well as their familyOs history.
RZ: You mention your family's sadness, which has to do with your parents' having survived the Holocaust-like Julian and Paula's father in the book. Looking back, how did that influence your desire to be a writer? Do you see yourself in Paula, who says that she chose singing as a career to make her father happy?
ER: As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist of some
kind. I felt such a strong urge to create, to make something out
of nothing, as I've written in one of my poems, out of air, out of
words. I was in graduate school when I began to write about my
family, and to discover that the material I'd been given to write
about was this legacy, this inherited grief. And yet I had also
been given optimism and joy, a desire to fill the world with
beauty and art. My mother was wonderfully poetic, and her
love of words and images inspired me a great deal. I think that
somehow I wanted to transform my parents' pain into something
that could offer hope and healing. Paula's epiphany was my
own: the profound realization that I had to embrace sorrow as an
essential part of my art.
RZ: Were you worried about your parents' reactions to the book? What did each one tell you when they first read it?
ER: I can't say I was worried about their reactions exactly, because
I knew they would see that I had used my imagination, that I
wasn't exposing my own family and its history in a literal
sense. In other words, they would know that the father in my
novel wasn't modeled after either of them. I usually say that this
book is emotionally, not factually, autobiographical. In fact, my
father's first reactions were editorial! He thought people might
find the book too literary, and therefore it wouldn't find an audi-
ence. My mother was very moved by it. She especially appreci-
ated the language, and reminded me that no doubt my gifts had
come from her. My father tells me that they shared a kind of
amazement at my ability to come up with so much imagined ma-
terial. I'd like to believe that both my mother and my father have
been able to see this book as a tribute to the ways I listened to
them and honored their stories. My mother died two years ago,
and my father says that she had the manuscript by her bed when
she died. He told me she was planning to read it a second time.
RZ: As your father observed, you did indeed write a quiet novel-without a single car chase or scene of sexual acrobatics! And one of the triumphs of The Speed of Light is that you are able to make quiet and tender moments very dramatic and moving. For instance, when Julian lies down beside Sola I was both surprised and touched. Did you share your father's concern about maybe not finding an audience?
ER: Yes! But the truth is, I had to write the only book I could write. I
mean this in the purest sense: that I wanted to write with emo-
tional honesty and that I wanted to write a book I would be truly
proud of. I couldn't contrive to include elements that I thought
might make the book sell without feeling I was diminishing my-
self as a writer. Not that I'm even sure I could write car chases or
sexual acrobatics! And I was fairly certain this book wouldn't
find a publisher at all. That was the amazing discovery I made
while writing it: I didn't care. I wasn't writing the book from a
place of ambition but from a desire to say something I felt to be
true. To do my best and then stand back, let it go. To know that
it's out in the world, that it's being read now in all of these lan-
guages, many of which my parents and their friends speak, that
knowledge fills me up.
RZ: Your main characters rely on routines to cope with the ghosts of their past: Julian needs to have his home in perfect order; Sola needs to clean things beautifully; and Paula needs to train her voice with utmost discipline. Did this aspect of the book come directly out of your observations of your parents?
ER: I believe that all of us develop coping strategies for our suffer-
ing, and I'm sure that on many levels I learned about coping
with ghosts by watching my parents and being extremely self-
conscious. Still, I have to admit that all sorts of details emerged in
this novel without my conscious choice. Often, when I was
writing, I would be in a kind of trance, and so the characters' be-
haviors and thoughts and feelings slowly evolved on their
own. Once I had the material in front of me, I could see how all
three of them had their preferences and quirks. I certainly have
plenty of my own.
RZ: Since much of the book emerging from out of your writer's trance, is there some aspect of it that even today surprises you-that feels as if it came from somewhere beyond your own experience?
ER: I felt I was taking the most risks with the character of Sola, since
she comes from a part of the world I've never even visited,
though I do speak Spanish. I remember when I read about the
massacres in Central America, I felt an intensely visceral famil-
iarity; the testimonies of witnesses reminded me on an emotional
level of the stories I'd heard all my life from Holocaust sur-
vivors. Somehow I was haunted all over again: How did they
find ways to go on living after so much devastation and loss?
Maybe because I'd known only my parents and other survivors
in the aftermath of their trauma, I was determined to follow
someone into that imagined realm that I myself wanted to wit-
ness. Still, Sola's capacity for compassion, either in spite of or be-
cause of her suffering, feels like a gift that came from some
mysterious place, as if it's a lesson for me too.
RZ: The Speed of Light is infused with odors and scents. I recall in particular Julian's writing of Sola: "Between us was a sheet and thin blanket and air that was radiant with her heat and smell of cinnamon and lemons and some indescribable scent, almost like baked corn but not quite that either." I have a feeling that this focus came naturally out of the book's concern with how the past influences our present, since our sense of smell is so intimately tied to remembrance. Would you talk a bit about this?
ER: Again, I have to confess that these details weren't necessarily
chosen consciously, though I do know that my methods involve
a heavy reliance on sensory detail to bring me into intimate con-
tact with a scene and a story. I write by listening, feeling,
smelling, observing, even tasting, at least in my imagination. The
idea that a scent can reawaken a very precise memory is fascinat-
ing to me, and yes, it's another reminder of how our ability to re-
member is what allows us to be in two places at one time. With
Julian, in particular, I felt that despite all his efforts to be numb,
he couldn't ignore the power of his senses and his emotional re-
sponses to the ways they brought him news of the world.
RZ: You and I have been friends for many years, so I know you've spent quite a bit of time outside the United States. An aspect of the book that seems strongly influenced by that is your poetic use of language. Sola notes that it is easier for her to hear the poetry of word combinations in a foreign language. Is that true for you, as well? How did sola being a Spanish speaker and your own experiences overseas influence your desire to write poetically?
ER: Substantial parts of the book were written in other countries, in-
cluding Greece, and I do believe that my love of foreign ac-
cents and melodies is a very strong source of my voice. I grew up
surrounded by foreign languages, and always appreciated my
mother's fanciful English. Sola, in some ways, represents the
non-native speakers I've heard all of my life. I have always had a
sense of pride in and fascination with my parents' abilities to
reinvent themselves in America. Sadly, I feel mostly monolin-
gual myself, and yet I love to imagine how creatively exhilarat-
ing it can be to express oneself in a new tongue.
RZ: As a unique tragedy, the Holocaust is incomparable. To some that means we can never equate the suffering of the Holocaust survivors and their children with those who have been destroyed and brutalized in other places and at other times. Yet Julian and Sola are able to help each other precisely because they equate the suffering the other has experienced with their own. There is no sense that Julian believes that his trauma, or the trauma experienced by his father, is more important that Sola's. I remember him saying, "Her voice(was) thick with grief, longing, things I recognized." Were you at all worried that some people might criticize you for having Julian and Sola find such solidarity and deep friendship in each other? Did it seem like a risky choice?
ER: I was aware that some people might be offended or disturbed by
any implication of parallels being drawn between the Holocaust
and other tragedies, even other genocides. Yet, the point for me
was to express the idea that suffering happens to individuals,
one at a time. I believe that feeling compassion-especially
across cultures-for someone else's pain, is truly a path toward
healing.
RZ: Are there new things you discover about what you've written when you do a reading in front of an audience?
ER: Often the surprises come when people quote lines back to
me that I don't remember having written. I really meant what
I said earlier about writing in a trance. I think when I'm work-
ing from a very deep place, the images and words aren't being
developed by way of my intellect but are coming through in
some visceral sense. I can't begin to describe the pleasure of hav-
ing this book returned to me by way of people receiving and
sharing it.
RZ: This was your first published novel. What was the best moment about it-having the book in your hands for the first time, seeing it in bookstores, being able to share it with family and friends? Was there a special moment of quiet happiness?
ER: The moment when I first held the bound galleys, that beautiful
Advanced Reader's Edition, that was when I thought my heart
would burst with joy. I think until that instant I didn't quite be-
lieve any of this was truly happening, that my years of struggle
were actually coming to fruition in this way. And then months
later, when I gave my first reading in a bookstore in Berkeley,
where I live, with so many of my friends there, and my father
too, that was stunning. I said that night that I finally understood
what it means to say my dream has come true.
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Every family has a story. Every story, eventually, must be told.

For most of their lives, Julian Perel and his sister, Paula, lived in a house cast in silence, witnesses to a father struggling with a devastating secret too painful to share. Though their father took his demons to the grave, his past refuses to rest.

As adults, brother and sister struggle to find their voices. A scientist governed by numbers and logic, Julian now lives an ordered life of routine and seclusion. My father gave up his language and his homeland. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin. It was mine now. In contrast, Paula has entered the world as eagerly as Julian retracts from it. An aspiring opera singer, she is always moving, buoyant with sound. Singing was the only gift I could offer to my father. I filled the house with music. I tried to give him joy. . . .

Yet both their lives begin to change on a Wednesday, miercoles, the day that sounds like miracles. Before embarking on a European opera tour, Paula asks her housekeeper, Sola, to stay at her place--and to look after Julian in the apartment above. Yet Sola, too, has a story. I want to clean myself like the window of a house, make myself clear for things to pass through. Flat and quiet.

As Paula uncovers pieces of her father's early life in Budapest and the horrifying truth of his past, Julian bears witness to Sola's story--revelations that help all three learn how to both surrender and revere the shadows that have followed them for so long.

The Speed of Light is a powerful debut about three unforgettable souls who overcome the tragedies of the past to reconnectwith one another and the world around them. In an extraordinary accomplishment, Elizabeth Rosner has created a novel of love and redemption that proves the pain of the untold story is far greater than even the most difficult truth.


From the Hardcover edition.

1. The Speed of Light features three very distinctive characters and
their struggles to overcome the difficulties of their past. Which
character did you relate to the most, and why?

2. The novel ends with each character on the brink of a new dis-
covery. What do you imagine happens after the end of the
book? What do you think the future holds for Sola, Julian, and
Paula?

3. Compare and contrast how the presence of color, scent, and sound
informs the lives of Julian, Paula, and Sola.

4. In the novel, bearing witness to tragedy implies a responsi-
bility held by both the person telling the story and the person
listening. How do you think these responsibilities differ? Do
you agree with Sola that each role is important in the heal-
ing process? Do you think this idea is applicable to the world
today?

5. Did any of the characters or scenes from The Speed of Light stay
with you after you finished reading the book? If so, which ones
and why?

6. The bonds of family are a central theme in the novel-both the se-
crets and silences that arise, as well as the close relationships
formed between parent and child, brother and sister. Are there
any feelings in the book that resonate with your own family expe-
riences? Do you think this kind of complexity is common to the
American family today?

7. During the course of the novel, each character experiences a sig-
nificant change and ends up in quite a different place than he or
she expected. Did you, as a reader, find that the book altered any
of your perceptions or experiences in the world around you? If so,
discuss these changes and the feelings they inspired.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2001

    The Speed of Light is a must read

    For me, reading The Speed of Light was like stepping into a nightmare that is transformed into a meaningful dream. The language of poetry interwoven with scientific facts gently carries the reader forward and backward, all the while in a vehicle that feels very familiar and personal. Liz Rosner's poetry, written long before this novel, holds the same mystique. Perhaps when one has chosen stories so steeped in trauma it is almost mandatory to soften the path to the darkness with the delicacy of poetic words and images. The Speed of Light will live on in the heart of anyone who reads it in much the same way as the inherited stories must live on in the present lives of each character. Cynthia Brody editor, Bittersweet Legacy - Creative Responses to the Holocaust

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2001

    Words for Your Bones

    Rosner's beautiful tale of loneliness and the inevitable connection we have to others and the past is one that deserves attention. Her prose is almost too wonderfully poetic to be called prose. There is not only one story here, there are three; and then, really, there are many more. This is one of the most affecting novels I have read in a while. It has a subtle way of sneaking into your bedtime thoughts and daydreams. It will sit on your desk or coffeetable, softly calling to you like the wind.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2001

    Fantastic and Engrossing Read

    An incredible first novel. A story told in three voices -- each voice filled with emotion and character. Rosner captures the essence of her characters and the story line is powerful. This book is lyrical.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 20, 2011

    RECOMMEND THIS BOOK

    THIS IS A GOOD STORY, THE CHARACTERS KEEP YOU INTERESTED TO THE END.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted July 14, 2011

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    Posted August 7, 2011

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    Posted August 14, 2010

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