My kindle is constantly suggesting new books for me to read — sometimes, it also offers me massive discounts, as well. When the two are combined. . .well, I am but a week mortal, and can not resist the lure of the 99 cent book. Some of those books have been phenomenal. Some have been. . .not worth the dollar spent. “Things We Set On Fire,” by Deborah Reed, falls somewhere in the middle.
The book is about around a family made up entirely of women. There’s Vivvie, the matriarch; Elin and Kate, her two daughters; and then Quincy and Averlee, the daughters of Kate. There are men in the story as well; Vivvie’s late husband, her next door neighbor, and of course, the father of Quincy and Averlee. The men, however, are drawn at the beginning as barely sketched out, almost malevolent characters — by the end, they are faceless blobs of goodness. Every character, really, begins as a kind of villain, and over the course of the book is rendered ‘good.’ It’s a pleasant enough journey, but with every character a type of angel at the end, it’s hard to see why the journey was necessary.
The book is plotted out to be a slow unravelling of secrets. In the very first chapter — nay, the very first page (even on my tiny, Kindle screen) we learn that Vivvie kills her husband. That’s no secret — Vivvie knows it, the reader knows it, and, as the story progresses, we learn that even her daughter’s know it. The secret is why. Similarly, we soon learn that something very fishy is going on with Neal — the father of Kate’s two daughters, and a man against whom both Vivvie and Elin foster an awful lot of animosity. The question, once again, is why. And finally, there’s the question of why all of these women are spread so far apart — why it is that their family has disintegrated into these three separate shards. The book does a good enough job answering the first two questions but it doesn’t manage to handle that final hurdle.
Why did Vivvie kill her husband? Because he was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and didn’t want his family to suffer through h his slow decline in health. She killed him to save their daugher’s the pain of a weakened father, and she did it to honor her beloved husband’s last wish. A bit trite, and a bit too easy, and really a bit nonsensical. How is a shotgun in the woods the best plan to end someone’s life? The second question is answered as well: Neal was first Elin’s lover, but when she moved out of state he stayed behind, married Kate, and fathered her children. This, too, is a bit trite, as Neal explains that he married Kate because she was so similar to Elin — that he has always loved Elin — that he still loves Elin. If Neal were a true character, if he were fully fleshed out, this might be compelling. But he is given a mere two chapters of exposition, all of which is spent on explanation rather than action. The reader is told what Neal feels — but because we are not shown, because we can not experience it with him, it’s hard to actually believe it.
And then the final question. Why are these women so torn apart? Supposedly Vivvie was a closed off mother, due to her own inability to deal with grief after her husband’s death (ahem. . .murder). So the girls drifted away. What isn’t explained, is why they drifted away from one another. There are a few clues, a few sentences that suggest that they were just too different. And, of course, it makes sense that Elin would want to distance herself when her sister married her ex-boyfriend. Even so, the distance is too simple, too obvious.
What is compelling isn’t the backstory, or the ties, or the questions waiting to be answered — what is compelling is the very real sense of pain and disconnect that drip from the novel. The prose itself is decent, evocative even at times, and the parallelism between Quincy/Averlee and Elin/Kate, while occassionally overstated, usually works. It’s a worthwhile read for a plane, or a long car ride, or (if you’re me) living a rather dull life in a hotel room for almost four months. But does the book set anything on fire? No.