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Book Review – How to Start a Fire

[Redacted name] would eventually notice the consistent and reliable push and pull in their relationship. If he withheld emotion or attention, [redacted name] came alive. When he showered her with affection, she would first accept it hungrily, and then withdraw. Edgar often felt like he was tending an extremely temperamental garden.

I felt like reading this book was a little bit like tending an “extremely temperamental garden.” It seemed to go in and out of intensity. One minute, the emotions were soaking you like a torrential downpour, and the next, a vibrant sun was heating you through your dampened clothes. It was sort of a wicked journey, one that was certainly never complacent as it went from one moment to the next like you were flipping through a calendar and just happened to land on a random day and thought, sure, I can tell that story.

How to Start a Fire tells the tale of three deeply complicated girls over the span of about twenty years, each chapter a new piece of the puzzle from a different period of time. 

Sometimes the book would make giant leaps and bounds from 1994 to 2014, and at first it gave me pretty violent whiplash. I couldn’t begin to fathom how I was expected to fall in love with a story I couldn’t keep sorted in my head. But after awhile it made sense, I fell into the rhythm with each flip of a page. The thing with these types of novels where you’re not following a story so much as the story is piecing itself back together right before your eyes is that you have to pay attention from the very beginning, or you’ll get lost. 

The characters were dazzling and so complicated I felt mundane while reading their tortured stories of redemption and failure. Each girl had been dragged through the mud, and each girl had that fatal flaw you just wanted to understand. But as was the custom with this book, you wouldn’t understand until three-quarters of the way through, thus you found yourself more frustrated than anything else while the girls went about their business of being totally and completely unfathomable. 

The thing is that I didn’t grow to expect anything from any of the girls. I didn’t get to know them like that, and that’s perhaps why I actually enjoyed this book. I didn’t know what was coming, and whenever something was revealed, I felt extremely satisfied. 

Anna with her dark sense of adventure.

George with her desperation to be unconditionally loved.

Kate with her protective walls. 

They all had these delicious character flaws. And while they weren’t totally original flaws, the author, Lisa Lutz, revamped them with new age and passion.

 I’d never read characters like these women before. They were fierce and loyal, but backstabbing and weak. They contradicted themselves at every twist and turn, and continuously fell back into old molds when you thought for once they were making a break through. 

You expected Anna to find love, you expected George to be loved, and you expected Kate to lure a man into her life to protect her.

But you never got what you expected. Your predictions got thrown around in your own scull as your eyes raced back and forth through the enumerable pages until the book came to an end and you were sort of smiling because it ended so perfectly. And I love that moment. When the ending just tickles you. 

The writing was fantastic, if a little grandiose at times. Lisa has a very crisp and poignant prose, but can get a little caught in the allure of big words. While large words have an air of sophistication, when tossed together in large chunks, the reading gets heavy and you lose your place in the story. You don’t ever want to lose your place in a story like this where you’re expected to rely on your own competence as a reader to make the story come full circle. 

Because the story was completely dependent on the reader. It could be satisfying and awe-inspiring if you remembered all the tiny moments peppered through out that showed up later on in the story as a very important piece of the puzzle. Or it could be grating and a waste of time if you lost the significance of a bar and a second drink. 

It needs your attention, and whether it captures you or not, this is a masterful novel with powerful themes and deep looks into human nature from the outside and eventually, from the inside. 

An hour later, the nausea and pain had dimmed to the annoying flicker of a dying neon light.

Because, once again, she wanted a professional guide into complete oblivion.

[Redacted name] straddled him on the couch and kissed him, tasting marshmallows again. She admonished herself by repeating this refrain: This means nothing to him. She pulled her shirt over her head and struggled out of it, wrestling with the shirt in a childish manner. [Redacted name] thought, This means nothing to her. They continued to disrobe, misreading each other’s minds.

GREAT head-hopping. I don’t see a lot of good head-hopping, but this head-hopping was phenomenal. Lisa never jumped into one head too long, and never gave us more information than was necessary. You only stayed with some of the characters for a sentence or two, but that was enough. And it takes a special kind of mastery to head-hop like that. 

The relationships were all a little incomprehensible. You wondered why any of them liked each other. But the last quarter of the book answers all your questions and you sort of begin to understand why all three women stayed together, battled their unwavering disdain towards each other time and again, because the friendships were more like sisterhoods. They didn’t go over every detail in a miscommunication, they just simply forgot, which is what family does. You just forget about that one betrayal because you can’t begin to imagine your life without this person and choose to just have faith they won’t fuck it up again.

Even thought they most likely will. Another thing you just choose to ignore. 

Despite its lack of action and a strict plot-line that unfolded in a normal manner, this book is worth a read. It’s dazzling and profound, and will give you another pair of eyes with which to survey the world and its complicated tenants. 



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