I was sent a review copy of this one a few months ago (thanks ECCO books!) and am just now getting to it. To be honest, I can’t say it sounded overly much like I’d be into it. So, I wasn’t rushing to get to it. Plus, I’ve been working hard to focus on female and POC authors, so that probably played into my delay as well. I can’t even really say what prompted me to start it what I did, but for some reason, as I was scrolling through a next audiobook to check out from the library, it popped up as available and I just went for it.
“How did people protect themselves? How did anyone keep this world from ruining them? I wanted to know. I wanted to know so bad.”
Lillian and Madison met as roommates at an elite boarding school – Lillian there on scholarship and Madison coming from family money. They became pretty fast friends though, after bonding over playing basketball and being a little weird, “off” if you will, together. Even after Lillian was kicked out of school and their lives took very different paths, they stayed in touch. One day, out of the blue, Madison reaches out to Lillian asking for a favor – that she come act as “governess” to Madison’s two step-kids who are moving in with her. Even though Lillian has no training in the area, nor does she have any experience with kids, Madison needs her, because she can trust her, and she needs someone who can keep a secret. The twins, Roland and Bessie, have a special affliction…sometimes they spontaneously combust. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. Over the course of a single summer of trial and error, Lillian and the twins learn to trust each other and a special bond is forged among them.
Well, this book was a complete surprise for me. Perhaps it’s partially because my expectations weren’t super high to start, but all I can say is that they were blown out of the water. This was such an incredibly quirky way to explore what being a parent, being a family, actually means. Coming from a very broken home herself, with a less than involved mother, Lillian feels acutely ill equipped to step into the role Madison is asking her to play. However, she’s at a point in her life that lends itself to her saying yes and her agreement throws her into some relationships that end up being so much more than she was ready for, emotionally and intellectually. And yet, even though she faces some ridiculous challenges, humorous in both the normal way that kids can be, and in the satirical way the story presents (that they burst into flame when agitated), she manages it all in a stride she didn’t even know she had. Honestly, she kind of crushes it. On a number of levels. And as a reader I was just as surprised as Lillian was – and I loved reading as she discovers her own strengths and abilities. It’s big-hearted and heart-warming in a very peculiar and unexpected way, as we watch Lillian step up on behalf of the twins and the way they warm to her as a result. The relationship that grows between Lillian and Roland and Bessie, while awkward and oddball, is one that perfectly fits the story and the life experiences of the three to date, and it was written with precision and accuracy, in that sense.
Also worth mentioning is the satirical humor about political life in this novel. Madison’s marriage to a high-powered politician, the way she got there and the commentary on them together (both from Lillian’s thoughts and from Madison herself) was fodder for quite a bit of smirk-level, witty entertainment that I quite enjoyed. Plus, the spontaneously combust-ing step-kids allowed some great observations about life in the spotlight as a politician and the outrageous degree it affects other parts of life, family decisions, etc. But the absurdity of these extreme circumstances allows for it to maintain its comedy and its satirical scrutiny, without crossing the line into something that would cause the reader to get defensive or turned off. A fine line, well walked.
Two more small comments to wrap up. First, I listened to the audiobook in addition to reading the physical book and loved the narrator’s voice. It was perfect for Lillian and it legitimately enhanced my experience with this novel. Second, there were a number of ways that fire and catching fire were used metaphorically, as well as literally, throughout the novel. And I want to say how impressed I am that this incredibly obvious device was used so smoothly – it could easily have felt like it Wilson was slapping you in the face with it, but it never did. *slow clap*
It took me over a week to find the time to sit down and write this review and I’m actually really glad about that. This story has a real slow-burn feel to it (pun intended) and I find that little sections and passages (both humorous and meaningful ones) keep popping up into my head. I am thinking that this novel is going to be one that sticks with me for quite some time. It was so…oddly poignant and I just can’t get over it.
Just a few pull-quotes for you to enjoy:
“A lot of times when I think I’m being self-sufficient, I’m really just learning to live without the things that I need.”
“‘Who would judge you?’ she asked. ‘Who do you know who’s done a good job? Name one parent you think made it through without fucking their kid up in some specific way.’”
“‘That’s fixing something,’ she said. You stop it from getting worse.’”