Things We Set On Fire by Deborah Reed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Spoiler alert: this description gives away much of the plot.
Vivvie, wife and mother of two young daughters kills her husband in the first few pages and the three women have to deal with all that means as the years unfold. For daughter Elin, “getting rid of her past had been her strong suit, a mindful hobby for which she had a knack, going all the way back to those early years, kids asking Elin and Kate what it was like growing up without a dad.” [p80].
Kate, who has two daughters of her own, was so troubled and at odds with her mother and sister through the years that she disengaged completely. Reviewing their life Elin realizes “whatever they had been to one another all those years ago was not enough to sustain them for all that came after. Elin simply couldn’t stand Kate.” [p 38]
Both daughters have crisis in their lives that bring the family together. Kate’s problems are so severe she has to depend on her mother and sister, but does so indirectly. Somehow the women need to come together to ensure the grandchildren will not be as affected by deaths.
All these years later Vivvie wants to make things right but has difficulty; she imagines herself talking with Kate “No more pretending as if he never existed, no more behaving as if memories of him were so bad she couldn’t speak his name. ‘I’ve been wrong about everything,’ she would say, ‘I ruined all that was entrusted to me,’ and that would be something. That would make a difference.” [p102] But she doesn’t get the chance for quite a while.
Elizabeth Strout’s novels (The Burgess Boys, Amy & Isabelle, Abide With Me) people also work through the after effects of a life changing moment. We wrestle with the question “does the past matter”? In Deborah Reed’s novel there is no ambiguity. The event negatively reverberate through the characters’ lives. “‘I’m sorry you ever learned the truth of it.’ [Vivvie said]. Elin plopped into the chair, defeated ‘Don’t you get it? The point is, you were shaped by it Mom. it changed you. And knowing the truth, well, I guess my facing the truth, actually helps in the end. It helps to explain why you were such an awful mother.”[p 215]
We develop narratives of our lives in order to make sense of them.
But our memories and what actually happened are different, especially as time goes on. “[Elin] wondered if their memories differed, if they’d chosen to keep the same ones.” [p 209]. These differences in our memories are roadblocks to understanding.
Come the end of the day this novel has a little too much telling and not enough showing; nevertheless, it has a compelling story line tackling the issues of family and connectedness. I like how the characters work through their problems, histories, and memories to deal with the problems of the present.
NOTE: 1/4/15. I corrected the title of Elizabeth Strout’s novel to “The Burgess Boys”(not “The Baker Boys”)