Who by Fire

Who by Fire

by Diana Spechler


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Who by Fire by Diana Spechler

Bits and Ash were children when the kidnapping of their younger sister, Alena—an incident for which Ash blames himself—caused an irreparable family rift. Thirteen years later, Ash is living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, cutting himself off from his mother, Ellie, and his wild-child sister, Bits. But soon he may have to face them again; Alena's remains have finally been uncovered. Now Bits is traveling across the world in a bold and desperate attempt to bring her brother home and salvage what's left of their family.

Sharp and captivating, Who by Fire deftly explores what happens when people try to rescue one another.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061572937
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/23/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Diana Spechler received her MFA from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University from 2004 to 2005. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Who by Fire

Chapter One

April 12, 2002

I'm sitting in Friday evening rush-hour traffic, staring out the window at the Charles River, and listening to the news. A bomb detonated in Jerusalem. A man speaks in panicked Hebrew. Another man talks over him in English: "How are we supposed to live like this?" they say in overlapping languages.

It's been eleven months since Ash clapped a yarmulke on his head, dropped out of college, went missing, and then one week later turned out not to be missing. Where he turned out to be was Israel, at a yeshiva, ready to spend the rest of his life studying Judaism. (Judaism! In Israel! A real pioneer, my brother.)

I call Ash from my cell phone and get his voice mail. Ash's voice mail annoys me. It's in Hebrew, for one thing, which is absurd considering he almost didn't get to have a bar mitzvah because he wouldn't learn his Torah portion. I don't know Hebrew, but I can tell by the way he speaks it that it's not right. It sounds distinctly American. In his message, he calls himself Asher. That's what he goes by now.

Maybe he's traveling. His last letter said something about traveling during Passover vacation. Is it still Passover vacation? I'm trying to remember that letter, but I can only remember the package that he sent with it: dried prunes, dried apricots, bright orange sticks of dried papaya.

On his voice mail, I say, "Isn't this getting a little ridiculous? Isn't it about time to come home?" I don't hang up right away. I listen to the silence in the phone, half-expecting an answer and hating the feeling. You can waste your whole life half-expecting the impossible.

The phone isringing when I get to my apartment, and I know it's Ash. I can feel him sometimes.

But it's not Ash. It's my mother, calling from New Jersey because she just heard the news.

"I can't reach him," I tell her. "But I'm trying. Don't worry."

"Bits," she says, "don't do this. Don't do this to me."

"I'm sure he's fine," I say. "Don't cry."

"You're sure? Here I'm about to have an attack, and you're sure! Call his yeshiva," she says.

I sit on the kitchen floor and lean back against the stove, propping the soles of my feet on the refrigerator door that I've never decorated. My apartment, in general, is kind of austere. I've just never known whose pictures to display, what sort of artwork I love enough to live with. Looking out my window at Allston, at the CITGO sign flashing and the traffic I'm not sitting in and the umbrellas in a million different colors on rainy days . . . it's enough for me. How much can a person ask from a place? "I'm not calling his yeshiva, Mom." I tell her that we should keep the lines free, in case Ash calls us. You can still convince my mother that she needs to do things like keep the lines free. "Good Shabbos," I say, even though that's not the kind of thing I say.

My mother says, "What's so good about it?"

Once I hang up, the gnawing feeling hits, like I've forgotten to do something or I'm supposed to be somewhere. It's the feeling I used to get as a child, when my mother would stand at the kitchen sink, her back to me, screaming at the window, "Where is she? Where the hell is she? Just tell me that!" It's an anxiety that my mother still ignites in me, although it's not about Alena anymore; these days, it's about Ash.

A familiar urge starts poking at me like a finger. Don't call Wade, I tell myself. Don't start cruising through chat rooms. Chat rooms are for weirdos. People with hobbies. Child pornographers. Do something else. Anything else. I drag the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom and turn it on, but I'm afraid I won't hear the phone ring, so I turn it off. I should exercise. Exercise is supposed to be calming. But I'm not much of an exerciser. After ten push-ups, I can't go on. I lie on my stomach, listening to my heart beat through the carpet. I get up and pick up the phone.

Oh, fuck it. I'm entitled. Just this once won't kill me. I dial Wade. "Come over," I say. Wade and I work together at the Auburn School. As my mother would say, he's no rocket scientist. But he serves a purpose.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

I press the phone harder to my ear, feeling my skull throb against the receiver. I squeeze my eyes shut and see explosions of color. "Just come," I say. "Hurry."

When I hang up, I go through the junk drawer in the kitchen until I find Ash's letter. It's dated by the Jewish calendar: 16 Nisan 5762.

Bits, I went to Rosh Hanikra. The waves blow against the grottoes at night. It's so beautiful. I was really close to Lebanon. You could look through a fence at it, but you couldn't cross over. Back to Jerusalem tomorrow. I just learned this: When we die, G-d will ask, why didn't you taste all My fruits?

He won't spell out "God" anymore. In my head, I start composing a letter to him. I'll sign it, Love, B-ts.

The intercom buzzes. Maybe Wade is one of God's fruits. So I will taste him. Whatever.

Wade hasn't changed from work. He's still dressed up like a gym teacher: a Red Sox sweatshirt, warmup pants with a stripe down the side, a whistle around his neck. He smells faintly of perspiration. I reach up and put my fingers in his short brown hair. He asks again what's wrong. "You sounded—"

"Nothing's wrong," I say. "It was a trick. I just wanted to get you here quickly." I grab a fistful of his sweatshirt and pull him toward me. We sink to the hardwood floor in the entryway. I straddle him.

Who by Fire. Copyright © by Diana Spechler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Katrina Kittle

“This book got hold of me and wouldn’t let me go, and it’s haunted me ever since I finished. I cannot wait for whatever’s next from Diana Spechler.”

Aryn Kyle

“Impossible to put down, Who By Fire is a remarkable tale about fear and forgiveness and the bonds that hold a family together even as its members are falling apart. It’s a beautiful novel.”

Cristina Henriquez

“Told with grace, humor, and astonishing candor, this is a novel that will break your heart. To call it an extraordinary debut doesn’t do it justice. This is an extraordinary novel, period.”

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Who by Fire 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Malkie More than 1 year ago
What a journey! This book had me by chapter one and didn¿t let go. I literally finished it in a day. It is not a happy, quirky, fluffy story. It is real, gritty, and at times disturbing. I know these characters, I recognize them in my friends, family, and in myself. This book will draw you in and make you really think, change allegiances, and leave you off with a new perspective.
SusanIL More than 1 year ago
The story was novel, engaging and the writing style crisp and sharp. Spechler's use of three separate characters who view and live thru the same life experience but from different points of view is extremely effective -- similar to Barbara Kingslover's Poisonwood Bible, and offers us as readers the opportunity to make our judgement as to what is "true". Be warned -- you will want to keep reading thru to the end so prepare to spend a few hours!
lrubi More than 1 year ago
What a gem! Spechler's debut novel addresses complicated issues including religion, guilt and family tragedy with style, grace, and unique prose that is highly addictive. Her vivid character development and alternating narrative voice forces the reader to form an intense love/hate relationship with each character. Impossible to put down, yet worthy of being savored, Spechler is a refreshing reprieve from other young female authors today. Who By Fire is the best book I have read in ages, and I look forward to seeing what's to come from this immensely talented new author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting characters and story line
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recreational-reader More than 1 year ago
I liked and disliked this book all at once. I like the story line but did not like that there was no resolution with a main part of the story. The book is more of an emotional journey than an actual story. I think the characters had character traits that were very dislikable but I did find myself understanding them- I don't necessarily agree with the choices that author had them make- like having sex at 10 (Bits), self-imposed isolation (Ash), and constant nagging (Mom). Additionally, I had a really hard time understanding the language of Judaism. This book was so steeped in tradition and language heavy, it was often hard to understand the words in context. I am not Jewish and have little background knowledge, which made this a hard read. At first I would reread, but by the middle of the book I found myself skimming areas that had religious information. To me, it just was not essential to the storyline. While appreciate the author's desire to include religion as part of the foundation of the story, this should be title religious fiction. I am not raving about this book but I would say if you have an understanding (or want to explore) Judaism this would be a good read..
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Gigglekiss More than 1 year ago
Throughout the book, the author constantly shifts the point of view between a mother and her two children, Bits and Ash. I found it a little "game" almost to figure out the perspective at the beginning of each scene. I know very little about Orthodox Judaism, or Judaism at all for that matter, so I feel like a side benefit of reading this book was that I became educated on some different Jewish holidays, traditions, phrases, etc. I found myself googling a bit as I read. The plot of this novel is very slow, however- it's more of an emotional exploration than much of a story. Although Spechler developed her quirky characters well, I didn't find any of them very likeable or redeeming, which I enjoy in the books I get to read in my quite limited spare time as a teacher and mother of a one year old. Great title, by the way, and I like the way it ties into the book.
JoEllyn Steele More than 1 year ago
Kept my attention for the most part but very predictable and not much depth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bleeding_espresso More than 1 year ago
Who by Fire tells the story of Ash and Bits, a brother and sister whose younger sister Alena had been kidnapped more than a decade ago. When their mother informs them that her remains have finally been discovered, it's up to wild child Bits to go to Israel and convince her now Orthodox Jew brother to come home for a memorial service-no easy feat as he's been out of touch with the family since entering the yeshiva. The book is told from shifting perspectives, really getting into the minds of the various characters. I'm no expert on Orthodox Judaism, so I can't comment on how accurate the scenes in Israel might be, but I do know that I couldn't put this book down. None of the characters are particularly lovable, at least not for me, but that didn't stop me from devouring this book-I believe it's called the train wreck syndrome. What I mean is that each character is a bit (or a lot) of a mess-the book itself is far from a train wreck. Indeed, it's fabulous. The plotting, pacing, and writing all shine; I particularly love Spechler's conversational, down-to-earth writing style, which you might not expect in a book with such deep subject matter. Spechler shows that humor has a place everywhere, even when dealing with heavy topics, and this is something that I firmly believe as well. I give this books five espresso cups out of five. I simply couldn't stop reading, and as I wrote to Diana after I finished, I then found myself imagining what happened to the main characters-the true sign of a great book. ~Michelle Fabio bleedingespresso.com
Guest More than 1 year ago
Absolutely could not put it down. Can't wait to see more by this talented new author.
darlaa More than 1 year ago
This book quickly sucked me in. It was so unpredictable and I just LOVED it. I would definitely recommend this great novel.