I don't personally subscribe to any form of religious fundamentalism, but reading Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God several years ago did give me a little more insight into its appeal for some people. After years of self-inflicted guilt over the disappearance of his little sister Alena, Ash (Asher) Kellerman finds that the disciplined study and strictly-defined lifestyle rules of Orthodox Judaism just might give him some answers, and makes the choice to immerse himself in a Jerusalem yeshiva. This decision doesn't go over well with the mother and older sister he left behind, and they're both open to some pretty extreme measures to try to bring him home, although for different reasons; his sister Bits (Beatrice) fights Ash's withdrawal from modern life, while his mother Ellie believes he's been brainwashed into joining a cult.
Ash isn't the only member of his family scarred by Alena's kidnapping and presumed death, of course. His father left the family, married again, and moved to Colorado, while his mother has essentially refused to move on with her life at all. Bits has been acting out since her pre-teen years, making very few personal connections other than sexual ones. The Kellerman family has been damaged for years. The events in Who by Fire represent the long-building climax, and potentially a resolution, of a family tragedy.
The central themes here are rescue and connection, and Diana Spechler explores them through the parallel narration of Bits, Ash, and Ellie over the period of a few months in 2002. As the women in his family see it, Ash has turned to religion to rescue himself; it's a choice they can't understand, and although they respond in different ways, both Bits and Ellie think he needs to be rescued from religion. Everyone in this family has been needing saving from something for thirteen years, and their difficulties in communicating and connecting with one another show that it's not just the individuals who need a rescue, it's the family itself.
Spechler tells a compelling and unsettling story, and brings the narrative threads together in a way that I felt rang true in the end. At times I found every one of these characters frustrating, but I tend to see that as a positive thing - it usually indicates that I'm caught up in the story and wish they'd just get their acts together and figure it out. I would have liked to see more dimension and development in each of them, but then again, they might have been different characters in that case and their story would have been different as well.