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Salon: Time Traveler

Wendy Dubow Polins ’84, Photograph by Angela OwensFare Forward
by Wendy Polins ’84
Hamilton Hall Press, 2011, $16

A few years ago, Wendy Dubow Polins visited college campuses with her older daughter. “I watched her reaction,” she says, “and remembered my own—that feeling of being a student and everything, everything, is ahead of you. First love, first touch: all of those firsts.”

The novel that grew out of this sudden infusion of memory is hardly the average bildungsroman or novel about education, though the heroine, Gabriella, is a student. Fare Forward owes more to the speculative fiction of Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, or such unconventional, magical love stories as Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Solomon Rappoport-Ansky’s haunting Kabbalistic play, The Dybbuk.

An older physicist has spent a lifetime exploring the radical implications of his colleague Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and has finally cemented proof of time’s malleability—the existence of time travel. But he can only make this finding public if his granddaughter Gabriella relinquishes the love of a “mysterious stranger” who just may have come through a wormhole from another millennium to find her. The eminent scientist and novice architect—grandfather and granddaughter—endanger and embolden each other as their individual discoveries—scientific, artistic, romantic, and spiritual—become enmeshed. Dubow Polins has concocted a hybrid science-fiction thriller-romance.

Nevertheless, that old saw of creative writing seminars, “write what you know,” still applies. Driving the dreamlike novel is not only the tingling anticipation that the author remembered from her college days but also the conviction borne out by experience that bold, seemingly impetuous actions are written in the stars. “These crazy intersections of fate,” Dubow Polins exclaims with a crackly laugh of wonderment that proves infectious, “happen to me all the time.” When she interviewed at Barnard, she was asked where else she had applied. “Nowhere else,” she said. “This is where I want to be.” And so it would prove, though she couldn’t have predicted why.

A studious child in what she describes as a “non-artistic” family, she assumed that she would pursue law or medicine—until she sat in the dark of her first art-history course and listened to Professor Jerrilynn Dodds (now dean of Sarah Lawrence College) “talk with incredible enthusiasm” about the images on the screen. Dubow Polins signed up for every class she could get with Dodds, and when the professor invited her on an archaeological dig in the south of France the summer before her senior year, she jumped at the chance.

Fare Forward by Wendy Polins book cover

The four other students from Barnard and Columbia were architecture majors; faced with a Roman ruin or a crumbling Gothic abbey they would pull out their sketchpads and start drawing. “I realized that as much as I loved art history, I too wanted to be the one making something,” she says. “I didn’t want to just study what others had done.” Fare Forward begins at an archaeological dig. “The metaphor of archaeology is very powerful,” she notes, “whether you’re digging for your own history, for yourself, or for [the real] archaeology.” Like her characters, this architect-writer turned out to be doing both at once.

Gabriella follows her creator’s lead to pursue a graduate degree in architecture at Columbia. She spends late nights in Avery Hall buried under chipboard and endures end-of-semester “crits” in which each student must stand before a formidable jury of professors and professionals and defend her designs. Most crucially, the novel that features her is the fruit of an education in architecture that was “artistic and idea-based.”

“There was nothing about real world practical things,” Dubow Polins explains, nothing to prepare her for a first job devising a sprinkler system for a shopping center green. But assignments to draw up a house for a poet or a wing of a music school taught her to make her clients’ proclivities the foundation of her designs. And when she volunteered to renovate the interior of her local synagogue, in Boston’s North Shore, she was awake to the challenge of conveying spirit by means of solid form. So it was not such a leap to invent schoolwork for Gabriella that suited the themes of a metaphysical thriller. In Fare Forward, place is poetry—buildings are metaphors for being.

For the novel’s tone of foreboding, Dubow Polins drew on her life before college and graduate school. When she was a teenager, her parents sold their house in Montreal and moved the family to Israel. “Imagine a 15-year-old girl growing up in a very sheltered environment, with everything kind of simple and easy,” she explains, “and then my parents take me across the world, where my mother was traveling a lot—gone, basically—and my father was very busy,” as an orthopedic surgeon in the Yom Kippur War. Dubow Polins took the bus nearly an hour across Tel Aviv to school every day and returned in the dark. That sense of making your lonely way in a world too shadowy and complex to fully comprehend is at the novel’s elusive heart.

But what about its faith in enduring love? She has experienced that too—still is, in fact. When she was just out of college, her father liked to tell her about this charming young man he thought she should meet. As nothing appeals less than the prospect of a parent doubling as a matchmaker, she ignored him. But one day the two of them were enjoying a late lunch in an empty Dallas restaurant before she would fly back to New York when the same man entered the restaurant and recognized her father. He came over to their table. She liked the looks of him. Forty-five minutes later, she thought, “I’m going to marry this guy.” She did.
“It’s really a love story,” she says of Fare Forward. “What transcends time is love.”

—by Apollinaire Scherr