& Review: How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

The Book Itself: I am beginning to think that I only choose simple, graphic covers. While I do like the simplicity of it, it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about. There are three friends involved, and there are three components to the graphic flame?

My ReviewWhen UC Santa Cruz roommates Anna and Kate find passed-out Georgiana Leoni on a lawn one night, they wheel her to their dorm in a shopping cart. Twenty years later, they gather around a campfire on the lawn of a New England mansion. What happens in between-the web of wild adventures, unspoken jealousies, and sudden tragedies that alter the course of their lives-is charted with sharp wit and aching sadness in this meticulously constructed novel.

Anna, the de facto leader, is fearless and restless-moving fast to stay one step ahead of her demons. Quirky, contemplative Kate is a natural sidekick but a terrible wingman (“If you go home with him, might I suggest breathing through your mouth”). And then there’s George: the most desired woman in any room, and the one most likely to leave with the worst man.

Shot through with the crackling dialogue, irresistible characters, and propulsive narrative drive that make Lutz’s books so beloved, How to Start a Fire pulls us deep into Anna, Kate, and George’s complicated bond and pays homage to the abiding, irrational love we share with the family we choose.

*sigh* Too many pet peeves in this one to help me truly enjoy it. It has severely dysfunctional, unlikable characters who all talk and think the same, a jumpy timeline with no backbone or common thread, and a story with no real resolution or redeeming moment for anyone involved.

Let’s break it down by our narrators: Anna is perhaps the most annoying to me. She is power hungry and has a desperate need to be the center of attention, leading to serious, serious problems with drugs and alcohol post-college. She is sanctimonious, rude, and I never believe that she is going to change, even when she tries and tries again to kick her habits.

Kate is everyone’s enabler. She is unambitious, spending most of the novel in front of TVs, jobless, stubbornly hating her family for doing nothing wrong. She is also, largely, too passive to be really memorable.

George is so needy for male attention (daddy issues – what else?) that she either dates huge jerks, or men she feels no attraction to (but they’re the opposite of the guys she usually dates, so she’ll develop feelings for them, right? Wrong). She is also pretty hateful and spiteful towards virtually everyone.

I don’t like them. I don’t connect to any of them. While I think all of their problems are realistic, and we all know people in our lives similar to one or more of these women, they all stay nasty and addicted and subservient. None of them really overcome anything. None of them acknowledge their issues or work through them or treat each other well (even though this is a story supposedly about lifelong female friendship). I’m not asking for a happy ending with sparkles and rainbows, but I want to see characters grow. And I get that not all people grow, not everyone sorts through their flaws or even recognizes them. But it’s incredibly frustrating to read that – I feel like I am cheated out of an actual story. What is this if these characters don’t show growth or change?

This is compounded by the jumpy narrative. Every chapter jumps around on the timeline, and jumps between narrators. It is very hard to keep up, and I eventually stopped trying. Sometimes there are unifying clues – this person has died by the time this chapter’s events occur, Anna has been fired from this job already, etc. But overall, you’re left to fend for yourself. It feels too scattered, too piece-y to bring things together. I think this really affected how I saw and felt about our characters (who I think you can tell I’m not too fond of…)

Finally, they all talk and think in the same tone and inflection. I found myself having to flip back a few pages to see who was talking, because they all spoke in the same, clipped, almost robotic fashion. Overall, I wanted more variety, more growth, more story out of this story, and I was disappointed.

My Grade: C-

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