By Kate Wenner
Scribner, 301 pp.
Fire, sin, hate, death and God all figure in this novel about a Manhattanfilmmaker coping with a pair of tragedies, her father's illness and deathand the burning of her family's countryside retreat inConnecticut. The protagonist, Annie Fishman Waldmas, 40, scrapes against allthese rough experiences and does some serious growing up. Wenner, in herdebut as a novelist, captures the tense, hothouse atmosphere of an extendedfamily of affluent Jewish professionals enduring major life passages. An argumentative tone is so accurately consistently rendered that the reader, asked to live through a lot of family bickering, yearns to yell,"Stop already!"
Seeking solace in religion, Annie picks up her childhood faith through the practice of Jewish rituals, mostly reciting the prayers for the dead and observing the Jahrzeit, or year of mourning. Wenner captures well the agnostic's halting embrace of religion, and the knowing rebukes of the religious. When she seeks out a rabbi and confesses a need "to turn to my religion now," he answers, "Turn to your religion? Likesome twenty-four-hour fast food chain?"
Annie's spiritual search matures quickly. In a time when a vocal minority of people demand a kindly deity, one who is supremely non-judgmental, Annie leans toward a God who is based in tradition and scripture. She finds "a compassionate but demanding God," onewho asks simply that she listen. One only wishes we had learned more about her interior life of faith.
"Setting Fires" is a compelling yarn, if you're not put off by Annie'syuppie twitches or by Wenner's request that you sympathize with a well-offcouple who has lost their weekend home. Wenner tells a good story, but tell it, rather than show it, she does. Evenwhen the characters begin to leap off the page with emotion and action, shetends to dampen the flames with explication. Most sections unfold in atriune pattern of background, brief conversation or action, and longexegesis. In one, Fishman joins her father in California on the eve of hissurgery for stomach cancer and broaches the difficult topic. "'So how areyou feeling about tomorrow?' He cocked his head the way he did when hepresented business options to investors. 'Two possibilities. I'm going tolive or I'm going to die. We'll find out.'"
Now, that's punchy and real. But Annie proceeds to dissect the topic andsuck out the marrow from the scene. "It was a relief to me that this firstbit of truth emerged so simply. Later, when I looked back on those earlydays..." And on and on before the characters are allowed to butt in onceagain.
Thankfully, the main story has enough life to keep bobbing to the surface andmaking waves. Hate and love, sin and redemption, after all, are eternal andpowerful forces, and Wenner depicts their pull and push amid the mundanedetails of daily life. Waldmas investigates alleged anti-Semitism in thehills of New England, but first she has to find the baby-sitter. She andhubby want to collect on their fire insurance and rebuild their dream house,but first they have to carp at one another over the chores.
In the end, we believe Wenner when she guides Annie to fulfillment in theimperfect manner of all human endeavors for the divine, and in a spirituallydriven book it's a comfort for the faith to be so concretely rendered."Mostly I looked forward to the peacefulness that I discovered there, adeepened sense of all things, the certainty that there was meaning beyondwhat I could know, touch, explain."