If a book that confronts death head-on can be uplifting, Kate Wenner has done it in an auspicious first novel, "Setting Fires" (Scribner). The two fires referred to in the title offer unseen sparks, that, amid the danger of consuming flames, light the way to meaning for the main character and her dying father. The book makes for great reading with the approaching holidays. Wenner's presentation of the theme of teshuvah - and its impact on her characters' lives - will touch readers as they begin their own process of returning and forgiving.
Annie Fishman Waldmas, a documentary filmmaker who lives on the Upper West Side, receives two devastating phone calls: One message is that her country house is on fire, and soon after, she learns that her father is potentially very ill. As she and her husband, a photo editor, hear more about the fire, their suspicions are raised that it was anti-Semitic arson, possibly tied to several other fires in the area in Jewish-owned buildings.
At the same time, the news about her father grows worse, and although their relationship has been rocky at times, she is drawn closely into his circle of care. At the advice of a rabbi she seeks out, Annie, who'd never before been involved in Jewish life, tries to spend as much time as possible with her father. Rabbi Lowenstein emphasizes the importance of coming to terms with one's life at the end, of seeing life as a gift, of forgiving and feeling forgiven. With Annie's encouragement, her very successful but distant father begins to talk about his life - his "manufactured" personality - with a certain candor and self-awareness. He tells her for the first time about a fire in his childhood, one that has haunted him for more than 50 years. As Annie seeks the truth about her fire, the truth about her father's fire shocks her and gives her new insight into her father's life and her own.
This is a story of rebuilding family, of returning to Judaism; Wenner, an award-winning television producer who worked at ABC's "20/20" for 14 years, also deals with social issues like anti-Semitism as she tells the day-to-day story of her charac-ters' multilayered lives. There's also a veil of mystery as Annie and later the FBI investigate the fire. Wenner is a skilled writer and pulls all these elements together well.
Although "Setting Fires" is fictional, there are many parallels to the author's life. Her father died in 1988, and before his death, she grew close to him and learned of a fire that brought him much shame; she also experienced a real fire in her country home. "These were such transformative experiences for me that I really was compelled to write about them," Wenner says, explaining why she wrote this as a novel rather than a memoir. "My father's dying was a teaching for me in the power of truth, and that may be why I wanted to write the heart of it as truthfully as I could, while setting the story itself, and the characters who told it, in a fictional world."
As her own father was dying, Wenner videotaped her conversations with him and has just completed a short documentary film called "Time With My Father," which she'll show as part of her book tour this fall and at Jewish film festivals later on. In the film, Wenner's father tells the story of his fire. He also says good-bye, expressing great love for his family and the knowledge that in the end he was loved. "I couldn't go out in a better way," he says. "The time has come." His daughter comments, "He fought his way out of his past to provide for our future."
In videotaping her father, Wenner applied what she had learned as a television producer, to try to create an environment of trust so that he could find the courage to talk abouthimself. She urges people to take the time now to get their parents' stories onto videotapes. The keys to doing this, she says, are asking simple questions and "listening well, with real generosity." And she encourages people not to hold back from asking about the things they really want to know - for those are the things that people really want to talk about.
Around the time of her father's death, Wenner recon-nected with Judaism. About teshuvah, she says she has learned that "a real turning can happen even at the last minute. Dying can bring life into sharp focus and be an opportunity for healing that not only helps the dying person face death but also frees the next generation, and generations to come.
"I think that the notion of teshuvah is one of the most extraordinary gifts, to find ways to have a new beginning, to have the community's support in that once a year."
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for New York's The Jewish Week.