The nature of female relationships is a terrifying thing.
In “How to Start a Fire,” Lisa Lutz takes on the friendship between three young women as they meet and form initial bonds in college and then move on with their lives. The result is an often poignant, sometimes tense, and consistently interesting, complex tale that truly engages the reader.
Let me start by saying I’ve been a fan of Lisa Lutz for years due to the Spellman series, which looks at a family of private investigators through the eyes of their 30-something, rebellious daughter with whom I identified a great deal while I was in my 20s (oh gosh. did i just admit in passing that i’m through my 20s??!?) Her books involve strong female leads and quick, page-turning segments that are tough to refer to as chapters. She also played a lot with font, asides, footnotes and narrator changes in the Spellman books.
The story of Anna, George (female) and Kate is told through a bunch of jumpy flashbacks as the women progress through marriages, children, career changes, and approach their 40s. They met as undergrads in California and have various levels of ambition as students, employees, daughters, wives, mothers, and even friends. The bonds between the three women ebb and flow realistically as the years pass, and illustrate that in some cases water is thicker than blood as they encounter tragedies both big and small.
The novel’s title comes from camping trips, which is a favorite pastime for Anna, the free spirited and deeply haunted girl who at one point decides she wants to live in a tent and nobody can dissuade her. Much to Anna’s chagrin, the best fire-starter in the group is George, the long-legged beauty whose need for love and affection makes her tragic in romance. Kate, the one who intended to simply pass time in college before taking over her grandfather’s diner, goes along for the ride (as she does in most things, because she is second place even to herself).
I’d like to point out a few things… 1) the book has VERY sharp dialogue. The language really does reflect how conversations would sound between the girls, their families, and other characters. 2) the characters are sometimes incredibly unlikeable people. in fact, their family members are some of my favorites, because they aren’t as well developed and therefore jerklike (Lutz doesn’t make any of the three well balanced). 3) if anyone reading this decides to pick up the book because they also read the Spellman series… this novel doesn’t share the happy, biting comedy that the author gave to Isabel Spellman. keep that in mind. 4) the timing of the book is distracting. forget about the month/year headings and just let the story develop.
So, with those thoughts in mind, if you want to dive into a novel that will keep you wondering about it while it sits on your end table and you’re doing other things begrudgingly, go for it. I recommend it. Call a girlfriend when you finish it 🙂