Mary L. Tabor, Who by Fire
I absolutely LOVED this book. In fact, it has been the best book I’ve read in a long time and wished I hadn’t finished it as quickly as I did. I feel lucky to have discovered this author and can’t wait to read her next piece of work!
Mary L. Tabor’s Who by Fire is unique, sensual, emotional, and intellectual, all at once. With a captivating premise, the author leads the reader into a world of art, science, passion, and deeply felt emotion.
The novel begins with Lena’s death, as her husband Robert begins to deal with her passing. Mired by feelings of loss, Robert tells the story of Lena’s infidelity. Beginning with a fleeting moment before her death—a tiny gesture between Lena and Isaac, her coworker—Robert pieces together a tale of love, loss, and regret from signs he overlooked while his wife was alive.
Richly textured and beautifully structured, Who by Fire discusses music, art, color, food, religion, and physics as well as passion, love, betrayal and loss. The cerebral provides a counterpoint for the intense feelings that Robert, Lena, and Isaac experience throughout the novel.
Tabor captures the complexity, intricacy, and nuance of relationships beautifully. The reader leaves the book thinking that sometimes betrayal doesn’t just involve two people, and may even question the meaning of betrayal itself. Do we betray when we cheat? Do we also betray when we ignore or take for granted?
One of the things that stand out the most about the novel is its unusual structure. One reviewer describes it as “a painting in process,” where the author focuses on different aspects of the story, adding detail, color, music, and history to each part of the whole until at the end the entire work and all its beauty come to the forefront.
The author returns time and again to anecdotes of random people who committed acts of bravery as well as the controlled fire Robert witnessed in Iowa. These serve as a kind of punctuation to the story, revealing the person Robert is and the profound change taking place inside him.
The author uses artistic and musical concepts to describe people and situations in a way that makes these descriptions pivotal to understanding the novel. Unlike many other writers, discussions about physics, psychology, art, and music and not just erudite fluff, but actually move the story along, giving it texture and depth.
For example, there is a discussion concerning perspective between a work by Vermeer and one by Matisse. The discussion continues into a discussion of how individuals can perceive objects and situations in completely different ways depending on their perspective. Tabor also describes the idea of perfect pitch in music, but then turns it around to describe a person with perfect pitch in terms of being able to pick up subtle cues in conversation, in the tone of another’s voice, to discern what the speaker is really saying and feeling.
This novel was multilayered, cerebral, and at the same time powerfully sensual. Discussing love in its beauty, pain, and complexity, Tabor paints a realistic and touching picture of marriage, friendship, and family.
I highly recommend this book! If you read the first five pages, you won’t be able to put it down.