BookBrowse Reviews How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

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How to Set a Fire and Why

by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball X
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2016, 304 pages
    Jun 2017, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



A self-destructive and gifted teen anchors this arresting peek into a young and conflicted mind.

Lucia Stanton, Jesse Ball's precocious teenage narrator, lives in a converted garage with her ailing aunt. Her father is dead and her mother languishes in a fugue state at a mental hospital, both victims of some never-defined tragic event referred to only as "the thing." Too smart for her own good, Lucia has a delinquent streak. She shoplifts licorice and bounces in and out of schools. Her prized possession is her father's Zippo lighter. When she is expelled for assaulting a classmate, she lands at Whistler High where she meets a kindred spirit and discovers the existence of an "arson club" that piques her interest.

The novel, meant for adults, has crossover appeal for teens as well. Lucia narrates the story in a journal format, relating the minutiae of her day-to-day life, gym class and English writing assignments; visiting her catatonic mother; attending a party at an abandoned water park. There are frequent interruptions in the account as Lucia pauses to explain Cribbage instructions or draw a diagram of her aunt's garden. As such the plot moves slowly, but it is not without tension. Lucia edges forward compelled by contradictory impulses – to take a test for a program at a boarding school for the gifted and make a respectable future for herself, or commit to a life of radical and criminal action to burn the world around her.

Comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye are inevitable and apt. Lucia is Holden Caulfield reborn, with the same disdain for "phoniness" and other standards of judgment typical of teenagers who have not had the life experience that cultivates nuance. Lucia is as quotable as Holden, she remarks that "going to school is terrible and it frightens any right-thinking individual," and dismisses a local college professor by saying "he fraternizes with oligarchs."

The book raises compelling questions about its narrator's reliability and motivations (see 'Beyond the Book'). Is Lucia a sociopath or just a rebellious adolescent? Raised and indoctrinated by anarchists, she sees herself as "the inheritor of [their] ideals." Has she been poisoned by their belief system or is she right to consider arson as a reasonable and even redemptive act? While she is brutal enough to state outright that wealthy people deserve to die, Lucia is also shown to be capable of feeling shame and remorse. But when she defends her acts of violence by saying, "all the time, people basically beg me to freak out on them," she is kind of terrifying.

There are some great moments of absurdity and humor amidst the malaise. Lucia quips about the potential repercussions of identical nonuplets being appointed to the Supreme Court ("essentially you have one person being the whole Supreme Court, for life!") and grapples with the meaning of an essay test question that reads simply: "Why Hitler?"

In essence, How To Set A Fire is a character study. The journal format allows for little development of the supporting cast. Lucia is not without friends, but they are barely sketched in. The plot is minimal so the extent to which you like this book will be determined by how willingly you buy into the cult of Lucia. A radical, violent, self-righteous teenage girl bent on committing arson is, needless to say, not always likable. Salinger's narrator wasn't either, but Holden and Lucia share a similar capacity to fascinate as they spiral down their angst-ridden paths. Unlike Holden, Lucia has an overt political agenda.

The fact that this book isn't sadder is a credit to Jesse Ball's skill and light touch, the narrative never descends into hopelessness, even when it feels like it should. Lucia may be a hard luck case but she is so smart, it's hard to imagine she won't be alright. The reader's wish for her redemption is the book's sustaining force.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in July 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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