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Novel about World Trade Center memorial looks at how Sept. 11 attacks eroded tolerance in US

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"The Submission: A Novel" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Amy Waldman: Having chosen a winning design for the World Trade Center memorial, a jury in New York opens the envelope with the architect's name and gets a shock: He is Muslim.

Ten years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman takes a tough look at how the jury divided the nation, despite calls for unity and surface expressions of tolerance. Her debut novel is a sharp work with complex characters and an unflinching skepticism about human motivation. Waldman recognizes the tragedy of 9/11 without indulging in sentimentality.

Her jury has only one family member on it: the beautiful, rich, Harvard-educated lawyer Claire Burwell. The young widow captured national attention with an angry rebuttal of allegations that 9/11 families were milking the system for compensation money. Having seen Claire on television, the governor appointed her to the jury in the hope that her late husband's art collection was an indicator of his wife's taste as well.

Having manipulated the other jurors' pity and survivors' guilt to ensure her choice wins the competition, Claire initially is the architect's strongest supporter. Her liberal husband wouldn't hold his religion against him, she says. Her art-loving husband would want the design to stand on its own merits. But Claire gradually turns on its creator, her doubts about his religion and dislike of his reticence eating away at her as she struggles with loneliness and the fading memory of her husband.

Mohammad Khan has struggled in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Airport searches and a lost promotion have made the ambitious, American-born architect bitter. Entering the memorial competition seems like a way to revive his career and stick it to a country he believes has unfairly made him a target of suspicion. Mo is unprepared for the furor generated by his selection and the questions of faith it provokes within him.

Buffeted by the media storm, Claire and Mo find themselves manipulated by reporters, right-wing zealots, the liberal left and a governor with hopes of higher office. Claire faces jealousy from a firefighter's brother who lusts for the spotlight and believes he should have been on the jury. The unabashedly secular Mo finds no more acceptance from observing Muslims than the Jewish head of the selection committee. The fight over the memorial leaves both haunted, aware — even if unwilling to acknowledge — that they have lost their best selves.

Much of the power in Waldman's writing comes from her ability to gradually reveal layer upon layer of her characters' circumstances, creating a continual sense of enlightenment as the story progresses. Her construction of a Bangladeshi widow made suddenly rich by the compensation fund illustrates one of the paradoxes created by the tragedy: Many people benefited financially after the attacks, but the money gained never quite makes up for what was lost. The widow's wealth allows her to stay in the U.S. without working but makes her continually fearful of deportation or the kidnapping of relatives in her impoverished homeland.

"The Submission" is sure to generate controversy with its harsh take on many widows and firefighters' families. But it's a novel whose time has come. A decade after the attacks, it's possible now to look with perspective on who we were, who we became and who we want to be. Waldman's novel ends with regrets two decades after the attacks. It's almost as if she is sounding a warning, telling us that we have another decade to do better, to make things right and to try to heal some of the wounds still lingering from that horrible day and those that followed.

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