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All systems go God is an Astronaut'

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Novel explores trough by way of disaster

Mankind's fascination with space is an eternal one. There are few among us who haven't spent at least a little time dreaming about being up there, no longer Earthbound. It's such a widely held dream that there are companies out there whose sole purpose is to find a way to shoot regular people (really really rich regular people, but still) into space. It's the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream simply by writing a giant check.

But what if something were to go wrong?

That's what happens in Alyson Foster's 'God is an Astronaut' (Bloomsbury; $26); a commercial space shuttle carrying four civilian passengers explodes 12 seconds into launch. The resulting media frenzy is significant especially for one family in particular.

Jess Frobisher is a professor of botany in Michigan. She has two children a son and daughter with her husband Liam. Liam is one of the head engineering honchos of Spaceco, a company that has just become the first to offer space tourism. For the low, low price of $250,000, a person can strap into one of Spaceco's shuttles and be shot into orbit. All is well in their lovely little home Jess is even building a greenhouse.

But then the Titan exploded.

The accident kills six people and thrusts Liam and by extension Jess and the kids into the midst of a media feeding frenzy. Their lives are permanently altered, and the stress of living in the glare of the spotlight threatens to become overwhelming.

Issues are exacerbated when Theo Lacroix, a noted documentary filmmaker and scheduled passenger on Spaceco's next shuttle, is allowed into Jess and Liam's home in order to document how the family deals with the scandal and Spaceco's journey toward relaunchand rebirth.

Jess, lacking anyone in whom to confide, begins sending lengthy e-mail missives to her colleague Arthur, a fellow professor who is currently doing fieldwork deep in the woods and miles from civilization; the scope of Jess and Arthur's relationship along with many other details about him are vague.

That's because Foster has made the narrative choice of telling the story entirely through Jess's e-mails. Not her e-mail conversation Arthur's responses, while often alluded to, are never shown but just her e-mails. One side of the story Jess's side is laid out through lengthy e-mail screeds that are undeniably colored by her connection to Arthur, though we never see the coloring of his responses.

A writer always takes a risk when he or she tries something different in their storytelling. Veering away from the traditional can lead to an innovative and interesting reading experience. It can also lead to something that borders on the incomprehensible. When the writer takes a swing at something outside-the-box, how close they land to either of these extremes will likely dictate the relative success or failure of the work. Fortunately for Foster, her swing is more hit than miss.

Having the narrative unfurl via a one-sided e-mail conversation is a bold choice, but mostly an effective one. The absence of the responses that are in turn getting responded to in some cases allowed for a greater-than-normal degree of blank-filling by the reader; the device might have put off some readers, but for others, self-generating the contextual details of Jess and Arthur's relationship may prove engaging.

And the voice that Foster gives Jess is an eminently listenable one. Her narration, while perhaps unreliable, works well with the story being told. We get well-built snapshots of Jess her relationship with Liam, her interactions with Lacroix, her struggles with the kids. But the flow is best when Jess is talking about her greenhouse that's when Foster gives us a glimpse at the deep-down passions that the character carries. It's all pretty good, but the greenhouse stuff is great.

'God is an Astronaut' offers a look at the necessities of truth and the consequences of secrets; the impact of honesty is writ both large and small. While it has its flaws, the book's strong narrative voice and thoughtful core override them.

Consider this a green light - you are go for launch.


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