How to Start a Fire

how-to-start-a-fireHow to Start a Fire
Lisa Lutz
Published May 12, 2015
352 pages (hardcover)

I was talking the other day to someone about how hard it is to make new friends as you get older. You rely on your kids (if you have them) to help you forge bonds with their friends’ parents. You keep your fingers crossed that your new neighbors will be normal. If you’re feeling especially chatty, you strike up conversations with random people in your Pilates classes. Making friends when you’re in the throes of adulthood takes a lot of effort. And, sometimes, it makes you long for the days of college.

In college, you make a new friend every day. The girls in the dorm room next to yours? Friends for life! The dude who randomly sits next to you in your econ class? Study buddy! The chick you meet at your first-ever frat party? BFF! Friendships are forged at the drop of dime and, despite moves and life changes and differing careers, often stay strong for years and years to come. This book highlights that easy college-friend trajectory.

Kate, Anna, and George are three unlikely friends who meet at UC Santa Cruz. Kate and Anna were roommates “thrown together not by the careful dorm-room pairings that the housing administrators prided themselves on but simply because they were late applicants in a pond of already-paired fish.” They meet (or, rather, come across) George as they are leaving a frat party. She is passed-out drunk under a willow tree, abandoned by her date. They rescue her and bring her back to their dorm room to sleep it off. And, as is the case in college, the three are immediately fast friends.

The book follows the three on an unchronological path (jumping from their high school years to decades after college and everywhere in between), documenting their steady friendship despite years of life changes (marriages, divorces, kids, careers, etc.).

Rating: 3/5

This is definitely a character-driven novel (there plot is loose and peripheral). The characters are flawed but nevertheless likeable and interesting:

  • Kate is an orphan, raised by her Czech grandfather after her parents die in a car crash (“When you’re raised by someone who arrived in this country on a boat, it takes a while to shed the old-world ways. Kate would never lose that knee-jerk respect for her elders.”). Before college, she had never left the state of California (and, for that matter, hasn’t ventured far from Santa Cruz). She is the voice of reason and the worst-ever wingman, but suffers from inertia.
  • Anna is the daughter of rich parents (an investment-banker dad and a mom addicted to plastic surgery and social events). She grew up feeling stifled and suffocated, so she “had always lived like a convict, even as a child, perpetually preparing for her next breakout.” She enjoys playing games with people (especially when they are unaware), manipulation, and a stiff drink. She “maintained a thick skin by never being inside it.”
  • George is tall, beautiful, and athletic, but easily taken advantage of. When Kate and Anna find her beneath the willow tree, she “was wearing a short black dress hiked up high on her almost comically long, well-toned legs” and the “smell of vomit was in the vicinity.” She loves the great outdoors and becomes a forest ranger . . . only to have her dreams derailed by a string of ill-advised relationships.

Unfortunately, it seems like Lutz didn’t give her characters enough credit to carry the day. Instead, she relies on a jumpy narrative style, seemingly in an attempt to make the book more exciting and suspenseful. Chapter by chapter, the book hops from one year to another. And, because of that, there are too many places to keep track of, too many different minor characters mentioned, and too many close jumps in time to make it work. For example, in 1998, the girls are still in college in Santa Cruz . . . but a couple chapters earlier, it was 1999, and they were in St. Louis. Because of the jumpy, non-chronological story-telling, you have no idea what brought them to St. Louis until much later.

The end result: the timeline is clunky, confusing, and hard to follow. And it causes the ending to feel ill-fitting, random, and anti-climactic.

The hype:

  • an Indie Next List Pick for May 2015

Who should read it: Lindsay and Alana (i.e. people who truly understand and appreciate the impact and importance of college friends).

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universeby Benjamin Alire Saenz (winner of the 2013 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature; a 2013 Michael L. Printz Award Nominee; a 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult)
  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee in 2009; Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction Runner-Up in 2010)

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