Jul 26

Book Review: How to Set a Fire and Why

How to Set a Fire and Why: A NovelHow to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel by Jesse Ball

I got this as an audiobook from the library, and the voice actor they chose was absolutely perfect for the role. Lucia has a snarky, confident tone that’s still distinctly adolescent. The plot of this book was like watching a bowling ball roll down the lane, veering close to the gutter, close to the strike zone, now close to the gutter. As a reader I felt like someone standing by the ball return, frantically gesturing at the ball, leaning as if I could change its path. Lucia veers between a path towards success and a path towards disaster, and you don’t know until the end how it’s going to turn out.
Lucia has been dealt a bad hand. She has a dead father and a mother suffering from an unspecified mental illness in which the mother doesn’t recognize Lucia and gets upset very easily. It’s implied that the horror of her father’s death also caused her mother to go insane, but this is never explicitly explained. Lucia lives with her elderly aunt in a tiny garage that only has one bed, and when the story opens, Lucia has just been kicked out of her old school for stabbing a boy with a pencil.

Lucia also has some assets. She has a great relationship with her aunt, she’s quite brilliant, and apparently pretty enough that all sorts of men give her special attention.

That last part is a bit of a double-edged sword. Lucia is self-aware enough to know the affect she has on men, and prudent enough to be wary, while not being shrewd or amoral enough to really exploit this power. She has casual sex once, and it seemed extremely unromantic (as she never even bothered to learn his name until later) but most of the time it’s just this background radiation, where she is simply aware that the men want to have sex with her. This attitude made her seem rather mature and worldly. I think that a lot of young women are oblivious to the affect they have on men, as I was when I was young and way hotter than I remember being, judging by photos. When a sparrow looks at a cat, the bird isn’t thinking about dinner. Other girls grow heady with this power, like a ten year old given a light saber for Christmas. Lucia knows the men want her, and mostly she doesn’t care.

The brilliance is interesting because it’s coupled with her other salient feature, her dedication to anarchistic thought. You get the sense that she inherited this from her family. Her aunt, Lucia declares proudly, is a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist. One of her fondest memories of her mother is when her mother carjacked a tractor trailer full of Christmas trees just for the heck of it. Personally, these sort of people irritate me, but for Lucia, this anarchism is one of the few things she has left from her family, and she clings to it as much as she clings to her father’s lighter. No, more than that, anarchism is for her what Jesus is to someone raised in a profoundly religious household–it’s in every thought and action.

So of course Lucia feels she belongs in the school’s arson club. Her first in is through Stephan, but she soon learns that in the club’s pecking order, Stephan remains at the bottom. Because she is cute and female, Lucia gains entrance where Stephan cannot, but Lucia rejects her easy in. She wants to prove that she belongs to the club more than anyone. She rewrites the arsonist’s manifesto and plans the big fire that will demonstrate her dedication to arson.

I felt like Lucia was a believable, if self-destructive, character. She’s smart, and she makes stupid decisions, but her stupid decisions felt plausible and true to herself. Her voice was also spot-on, and the social dynamic between her and Lana and Stephan and Lana’s boyfriend whose name I can’t remember (Joe?) felt totally realistic. Lucia’s aunt was also a great character.

There were a few things I disliked. I don’t know as I agreed with the decision to never tell us how her dad died and why her mom went crazy. Also, her mom’s version of crazy didn’t make much sense either. It was convenient from a literary perspective “she died of a broken heart” but didn’t seem in line with any kind of crazy I’ve ever heard of. It wasn’t like PTSD (which would have been plausible) and didn’t seem exactly like catatonic schizophrenia (which is usually not event-triggered) and it seemed most similar to Alzheimer’s, except her mom wasn’t old enough. And who paid for the care, anyway? Why would there be money for full-time care for Lucia’s mother and yet no money for Lucia to have more than two sets of clothes?

(view spoiler)

All in all, it was a pleasantly dark little novel that I will think about for some time.

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