A sweeping narrative about a strange, orphaned girl and the college town pulled into her orbit.
Rescued from a freak fire in Ithaca, N.Y., and apparently family-less, a young girl becomes the ward of a firefighter and her retired father. There’s one crucial problem: The girl, who becomes known as Rosetta, doesn’t speak any recognizable language. When a teaching assistant at Cornell finally identifies the girl’s dialect, it turns out to be an artificial language of which no humans are known to be native speakers. When he attempts to communicate with her, she speaks in riddles, always returning to the “curse of the tower”—the tower of Babel. The enigma broadens when the girl begins hallucinating in apparently mystical communions with God that result in seizures. Vacillating between science and religious fiction, Rosetta’s story touches on an array of timely themes, ranging from Christian fundamentalism to genetic engineering to domestic terrorism. Characters from all parts of the college-town community are drawn into her mystery: In addition to the spinster firefighter who leads the investigation of the blaze and her widower father who becomes Rosetta’s caretaker, the linguistics professor and her teaching assistants at Cornell attempt to crack the girl’s code as an organization tries to kill Rosetta. As such, the story casts a wide net—it catalogs seemingly every emotion, suspicion, political inclination, desire and action, no matter how small. But rather than creating a sense of epic scope, the inclusiveness actually overburdens the narrative, and the thematic focus on the Tower of Babel is lost in the minutiae of its characters’ thoughts and exchanges. With more than 500 pages, the narrative brims with detail, which ultimately blunts, rather than heightens, the sense of adventure.
A compelling mystery too concerned with the details.