Margaret Lazarus Dean's debut, a coming-of-age tale set against NASA's space program in the '80s, is a finely written, carefully plotted and well-executed effort. Dolores Gray, a thoughtful math prodigy on the tail end of childhood, dreams of becoming an astronaut and is a faithful follower of each launch from the Kennedy Space Center, where her father works as a technician, and she happily records notes and articles in her beloved scrapbook.

But when he's laid off, the family she thought she knew wobbles dangerously in its orbit and her mother breaks loose, employing questionable tactics to win her husband's position back. She drags Dolores into her steadily escalating machinations, involving the powerful father of Dolores' friend and tentative first love, Eric. When Dolores rebels, her friendships falter, her parents' marriage crumbles and her father is left to care for Dolores and her younger sister, Delia.

Motherless and caught in a maelstrom of pubescent longings for two vastly different boys, Dolores struggles to fit in while carrying too much responsibility at home. As her life is plagued with problems, so too is the space program the public grows weary with scrubbed shuttle launches and spiraling costs, until the Teacher in Space program captures the nation's imagination. When the Challenger explodes in 1986, taking seven lives and prompting an investigation sure to affect everyone in Dolores' life, her family must decide what can be salvaged and what must be jettisoned in order to save them all.

The Time it Takes to Fall is a deft reflection on the loss of national and personal innocence that skillfully explores a series of events rarely addressed in fine adult fiction. Writing might not be rocket science, but Dean's first novel does the science and art of both proud.

Kristy Kiernan grew up in Florida in the '80s, and, like Dolores and millions of other students, watched the Challenger tragedy unfold on a high school classroom TV.

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