Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How To Start a Fire - Lisa Lutz

How to Start a FireWhelp, this book inadvertently ended up fulfilling one of my Popsugar Reading Challenge categories - "A book that makes you cry."  Not that I knew this going into it, of course, but it did make me cry and put me in a mopey mood for the rest of the day.  Still, overall I really liked the book, even though I didn't really like any of the characters in it, which is a strange situation but one that I think illustrates Lutz's skill as an author.

This is a very character-driven book, with no real central "plot" to speak of other than the growth of the characters over time.  These books can be kind of boring at times--illustrated by how much people dislike J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, which was a character-driven book.  Lutz balances this out by using a non-linear style to follow the characters.  This, however, also has a downfall--it can be a little confusing about what happens when.  At a few points, I did have to flip back and forth to look at the chapter headings, which include the year, just to make sure I was ordering things correctly in my head.  Overall, however, it's not too hard to put together a general timeline by the end of the book and come away with an understanding of the order of events.

There are three main characters in this book: Anna, Kate, and George, which is short for Georgianna.  Anna and Kate are roommates in college, and after they find George passed out in someone's yard one night, she is adopted into their group.  Over the years, the three separate and reunite at various times, and all of them have crises that pretty much link back to one fateful night when a door to their house is left unlocked and George is almost killed as a result.  All of the characters have different problems and neuroses, though George is the most normal of the bunch.  Kate jumps from obsession to obsession, ranging from giant redwoods to the plague to mushrooms and all topics in between, and feels a need to share everything she knows about these topics with anyone within hearing distance.  Anna is an addict, who starts with alcohol and moves on to various other substances as time goes by, facing a permanent struggle to get clean. mostly George, although she has marriage problems later that she links back to the night of the unlocked door.  As time goes on (or back and forth) the characters face various crises, heartbreaks, and dilemmas, sometimes among themselves and sometimes with other characters like parents, lovers, siblings, etc.  Sometimes they have to face these problems alone, because they've alienated the other members of the group; sometimes they have each other to fall back on.  In the end, however, they have a strong friendship that survives the trials of time, a few scars notwithstanding.

Lutz's writing is absolutely beautiful, and she made me care about the characters in this book even though I only liked one of them--and he wasn't even a main character.  She knows how to jerk at people's heartstrings without coming across as too "purple" or outright sentimental; she makes it easy to see why these people are the way they are--with one exception.  I didn't really understand why Anna blamed herself so much for one of the tragedies (there are many) that occurred in this book, and why so many other people blamed her when it clearly wasn't her fault.  Many other bad things that happen in this book were Anna's fault, and I think they would have left her fucked-up enough without including self-blame for this other one.  I toyed with the idea that she felt she was culpable for the event because she was responsible for so many other bad things, but that just didn't fit, especially because other characters were blaming her, too...  That really rubbed me the wrong way, and was one of the very few things that I disliked about the book.

There's also a repetition of a "fire" theme in this book, which you could probably guess from the title.  However, there is no fire-building instruction here, and while I'm sure the fire theme was supposed to be symbolic, I'm not sure that I really understood what it stood for.  Baptism by flames?  Burning away the sins of the past?  That's my main guess, but I'm just not sure.  Apparently I'm not very good at recognizing things like that.

Overall, not a perfect book, but a really lovely one that has some big emotional impact and left me sniffling a little at work.  And you know whose fault that is?  Teddy fucking Roosevelt.

4 stars out of 5.


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