February 2007

Emberly Nesbitt

fiction

The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean

In 1986, the launch of the space shuttle Challenger with its “Teacher in Space,” Christa McAullife, was wheeled via television into every classroom in America; “the explosion was subtle… the rising exhaust trail popped into a ball of smoke; then two contrails arched away, carving a white Y onto the cloudless sky. Then there was nothing.” This subtle explosion is at the center of The Time It Takes to Fall, a debut coming-of-age novel by Margaret Lazarus Dean.

In NASA’s own backyard in central Florida, Dolores Gray, a young teenager, wants to be an astronaut. In a first-person narrative look back, Dolores imagines “how those astronauts must feel. They had escaped the planet and now were watching its surface move unhurriedly, like the credits of a movie, like something beautiful and harmless, their homes passing every ninety minutes underfoot.” As the novel works its way up to the Challenger disaster, the book clocks forward, ten months, one year, then again several more months. Dolores’s father, a NASA technician, loses his job, but still rousts a compliant Dolores out of bed at four in the morning to witness launches. As the space shuttles’ orca-like white backs and black bellies rocket into orbit every couple of months, Dolores faithfully records the launches in her Space Notebook. The novel’s prose is clean and unhurried, but the momentum and forward motion tend to bottleneck when integrating too many facts about space with the personal motivations of the characters.

As with most debut novels, the drama is familial: a mother acutely observed, alternately worshipped and reviled, who leaves the family. Dolores and her mother go on errands where Dolores is abandoned, first at a shoe store, then at a department store. The first outing, Dolores finds her mother in a cool, dark restaurant talking to Mr. Biersdorfer, her friend Eric’s father. Mr. Biersdorfer is someone they’ve had over to dinner, a man in a position to get Dolores’ father’s job back, and a case is slowly built for their affair. Dolores is shrewd, smart, and likeable, but her take on the affair, her teenage speculation as to where her mother has gone and if her mother is ever coming back start to make one feel trapped in her point of view. The time it takes for the family to fall apart, it would seem, is a long time. It would be more interesting to know what happened, rather than to endlessly orbit the fact of the mother’s leaving, especially since the book is a look back from an adult woman’s perspective.

One of the book’s most interesting relationships focuses on Dolores and Eric Biersdorfer, her equally intelligent, standoffish classmate. When Dolores’s mother points out that Eric has a crush on her, Dolores says, “I hated her changing Eric in this way: I’d had my own idea of him, of the complexity of his existence and of our relationship, and now he had been reduced to her crooked version of him.” Dolores’s narration has its finger on the pulse of how one thinks and copes in adolescence: the careful distinctions between what one knows and what one doesn’t know.

As Dolores’ father raises his two daughters at the mall’s food court, Dolores heads to high school one year early as part of the Gifted and Talented program. The book kicks into gear in Dr. Schuler’s physics class. Dr. Schuler, who gives them OTAs (Opportunities to Achieve) instead of tests, bursts on the scene as that first teacher who challenges, pokes, prods, and makes an indelible impression on a young mind. In her physics textbook, Dolores encounters a battery of questions: “Why do you think you can put your finger into a glass of water but not into a stone? If you dropped a bowling ball and a tennis ball off the roof at your school at the same time, which one do you think would hit the ground first?” The physics and physics class is integrated beautifully in the novel, and as Dolores gets older and starts to become a bit of a badass, the book finds its balance between loss and the sudden release of desire.

Remember the Challenger jokes? What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts. How do they know Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? They found her Head & Shoulders on the beach. The Time It Takes To Fall is a reminder of the Challenger tragedy -- the investigation, the speculation, the aftermath -- and ends with some little known facts about what actually happened to the seven astronauts after the explosion. An engaging, provoking, though sometimes uneven read, with a strong female protagonist at its center, this debut novel is a witness to the fall, from innocence surely, but more importantly from passive acceptance to an engaged struggle.

The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743297229
320 Pages