THE TIME IT TAKES TO FALL by Margaret Lazarus Dean

Original content...

DEC 9, 2008


"When the countdown started, people all around us picked up the chant: Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. The sun had just started to come up, bringing back the colors—the green of the grass, the red of our car—that had all been grays in the dark. At six the Solid Rocket Boosters ignited, the rockets my father had worked on, and at liftoff the stack slowly pulled itself up, inch by inch, until the pink cloud forming underneath it illuminated the whole landscape, the light of the rockets spilling out across the water, lighting up each tiny wave, each blade of grass, like day. The rumble I felt and heard later, the pressure in my chest, each of my hairs set to vibrating as if the Earth and everything on it were an instrument the shuttle strummed on its way into orbit.”

The year is 1985, the place, Cape Canaveral, in Margaret Lazarus Dean’s appealing debut novel, The Time it Takes to Fall. Twelve-year-old Dolores, who dreams of becoming an astronaut, attends launches whenever possible with her NASA technician father. Afterwards, she records notes in a journal crammed with clippings of newspaper articles, particularly those profiling her idol, Judith Resnik. But Dolores’s life takes an uneasy turn when her father gets laid off and her mother, Deborah, finds work outside the house, upsetting the family dynamics. Dolores, hovering on the cusp of puberty, is impressionable but smart, and in her 7th grade class encounters brainy outcast Eric Biersdorfer. Their intelligent minds work alike and a friendship develops, until an invitation into the popular girls’ clique forces Dolores to publicly scorn and then ignore him. Eric’s father, however, is NASA’s Director of Launch Safety and Deborah uses Dolores’s friendship with Eric as an excuse to invite his family over for dinner, in the hopes of precipitating the return of Dolores’s father’s job.

Dean does a fine job of depicting mainstream America in the mid-eighties, particularly when Deborah prepares for the dinner party, tackling the dingy house, eager to present an image of prosperity and elegance, complete with an elegant (to her) dinner. Dolores and her younger sister marvel at the transformation of faded, middle-class home into one worthy of loftier company, only to discover the old junk in a dozen grocery bags, all filled to the top, shoved in their bedrooms, a wonderfully rendered scene and image that stops the girls short and sears an imprint into both the reader’s and Dolores’s mind.

Deborah is an intriguing, fully realized character, both strong-willed and romantic, eternally restless and driven. In one scene she drops Dolores off at a shoe store in a strip mall, hands her a twenty and then promptly disappears. Dolores, in pursuit of her an hour later, finally spies her in a restaurant lounge, having a drink with Eric Biersdorfer’s father. Dolores’s young mind spins possible scenarios, particularly when her father gets his job back shortly thereafter. But Deborah is still restless and one day moves out without explanation to her two daughters. The household descends into even greater uncertainty, just as Dolores turns thirteen. Having qualified to enter the Gifted and Talented student program, she skips eighth grade and enters high school in order to study the more advanced math and physics. There she encounters Dr. Schuler, another wonderfully depicted character. As the physics teacher, his style of teaching is dynamic and thought-provoking, such as the time he sends his students out to the grounds to watch, as from the school’s roof, he throws down a book and a pencil in order to demonstrate whether a heavier object takes less time to fall. Delores, provoked and entranced, excels in the class.

Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, the Challenger explodes, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, and all of Dolores’s easy suppositions about the world, life, things that are supposed to be safe, are destroyed. In the disorienting aftermath, investigations follow, theories and rumors abound. At risk is not only the career of Dolores’s father’s but that of countless others, including Eric Biersdorfer’s father, who may or may not be having an affair with Dolores’s mother. Dolores begins to explore the dark side of her newfound high school status and freedom—sexual experimentation, cutting classes, hanging out with rougher kids. Feeling alone and adrift, it is not to her parents or new friends she turns finally, but Eric, now attending a different school, who just might be the one to answer the questions, the issues that trouble and plague her, not least of which is how she feels about him. Dean aptly captures teenage angst and produces true-to-life dilemmas, although less realistically drawn are Dolores’s female friends, from the clique queen to the rougher sophomore “cool” girls, whose actions and easy befriending of Dolores seem more convenient to the story and less true to the harsh realities of teenage-dom, particularly for young, brainy physics prodigies.

What I found most impressive about Dean’s smooth-flowing debut is the fact that she did not experience this firsthand, as the reader might be led to believe, so assured is the writing, so grounded in detail. Research alone brought this world to life (which bodes well for the quality and variety we can expect in her next novel). Dean, according to an interview, audited a physics class while working on the novel, which allowed her to become familiar with the ballistics equations that Dolores employs toward the end of the story, which help determine how long it took the crew, having survived the initial blast, to fall, from whence comes the story’s title. Dolores’s closing speculative thoughts on this, in the epilogue, are particularly poignant.

"[The seven crew members] fall for two minutes and forty-five seconds, longer than anyone else has ever fallen unfettered. They have more time to contemplate their impending deaths than anyone ever to feel the acceleration of thirty-two feet per second. But—and this is the odd thing about falling—no matter how far they fall, no matter how long they wait and how certain they are now that no parachute, no net, nothing can save them, in the moment just before impact, they are still perfectly whole, breathing, living, and in that state it is impossible, impossible to believe in their own deaths."

This novel will appeal to adult and teenage readers alike, as well as fans of the movie, The Right Stuff (count me in here). A recommended read, particularly for its slice of Americana, and its coverage of a tragic event and moment in U.S. history we won’t—and shouldn’t—ever forget.

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