Monday, May 18, 2015


Told in alternating chapters from multiple points of view, taking place over twenty-six years in at least fourteen different locations, How to Start a Fire is a recipe for literary disaster. Luckily, the story was in the hands of Lisa Lutz, and despite the ever-changing point of view, location, and time period, I never for a minute felt lost or taken out of the moment. That's some masterful plotting and storytelling, the book knocked my socks off.

How to Start a Fire sucked me in from the first chapter, a mere two pages long and set in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2005. Kate Smirnoff, 30 years old but looking all of 15, is sitting in a diner, being chastised by an old stranger named Bill for being a woman traveling alone, something he says he would caution his daughter about:

"Has your daughter ever killed a man?"
"Of course not," Bill said.
"I didn't mean for it to happen, but it did."
Kate said it to silence him. She was surprised how well it worked. It slipped off of her tongue so easily this time. She wondered why that was.

Lutz lured me right in with that shiny barbed hook and I couldn't get loose until the very last page. To be honest, I didn't struggle very hard. Instead of fighting against the line, I couldn't swallow these lines quickly enough. (Don't ask where all the fishing metaphors are coming from, I have no damn idea, just humor me. There are camping scenes in the book, let's just blame Lisa Lutz, shall we?)

Kate Smirnoff, Anna Fury and George (short for Georgianna) Leoni meet at U.C. Santa Cruz (Go Slugs!) in 1993, when Kate and Anna find George passed out under a willow tree after a party. So begins more than two decades of friendship and all it entails - joy and jealousy, crazy good times and estrangements, prop-ups and let-downs, loyalty and betrayal, marriage and divorce, birth and death.

Anna is the default leader of the trio due to her strong personality. She's always looking for the next spur-of-the-moment adventure or con, a little dangerous, always plotting and in motion, perhaps trying to out-run her demons. Kate is more internal, and spends what Anna believes is too much time watching TV and researching the latest in a list of changing obsessions (moles, 19th Century prison slang, salt...), with little ambition other than to take over her grandfather's diner when he retires. George is "the kind of woman who could do nothing to shake her beauty," a long-legged volleyball player who attracts men wherever she goes but has a habit of always picking the wrong one. If I had to pick one brief section to sum them up it would be this one:

George once commented that TV was Kate's cocktail. And Anna told George that men were George's cocktail. Anna had held her vodka on the rocks aloft and said proudly, "And my cocktail is a fucking cocktail."

This friendship also experiences, and is in many senses defined by, something most don't, and the story revolves around that something, the chapters from each end of the time spectrum slowly circling events referred to only as "what happened." Because of that underlying tension, each chapter is multi-dimensional, providing further insight into one or more of the women through the piece of the story it shares, as well as an intense vignette nipping at the edges of "what happened."
This is the sheer genius of the way Lutz has told the story, slowly answering the question of who these women are and how they were impacted by "what happened" before "what happened" is ever revealed.

There are plenty of actual fires in How to Start a Fire, and I'm sure readers smarter than I will find all kinds of metaphors lying in wait. Of course there are the "fires" that take place in any relationship, good and bad, some smoldering for years, others burning hot and flaring out.

For me, however, the whole book and method of story-telling was the metaphor. Instead of rubbing a stick between her palms to create heat and eventually fire at the point of contact, Lutz has used her characters and chapters, swirling from both ends of the time spectrum, to create an ever-ratcheting tension around the ultimate reveal of "what happened." The cover is a perfect graphic illustration of what I'm talking about, but more on that later.

The fact that I'm not giving you any facts about the story is no oversight. Part of the beauty of the book is letting them unspool and add to the whole at the rate Lutz wanted you to have them. I will tell you Lutz has, per usual, created fascinating characters with depth and given them sharp dialogue to work with. Each woman has a voice so unique there is no question which point of view is expressed in every chapter. Though the book is quite serious, fans of Lutz's Spellman series will be glad to know the humor still shines through.

What I will leave you with is the final paragraph of the book's Acknowledgments, which reads as follows:
Lastly, I'd like to thank all of my friends, especially the female ones, the weird friends, the ones who inspired the book by being unique and strange and completely of themselves. I won't name names, but some of you are even weirder than I am, and that has always brought me great comfort.
Lutz knows friendships. She knows women. She knows unique and strange. And all of that knowledge is poured into and wrapped up in How to Start a Fire. It's a friendship love story in the end. Don't miss it.

STREET SENSE:  I can't recommend How to Start a Fire highly enough, particularly for those of you who enjoy stories of relationships over time and how all involved are molded and changed by the others as well as the events of their lives, big and small alike. But if the above isn't enough, Lutz wins huge points by making two fantastic movie references. You'll have to read it to find out which two.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: How to Start a Fire includes sections written in different styles, such as emails or question and answer. This passage is from one such section. I'm not going to tell you who is speaking, but this portion of a Q&A resonated with me as I think it may with many who read a lot of the dark stuff as I do:

Q:  What do you do when you're not here?
A:  I read a lot.
Q:  What kind of books do you read?
A:  Crime.
Q:  Why?
A:  Because in the books, people do things far worse than I have ever done.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I loved this cover as soon as I saw it. It's clean and precise, I love the color palette. As I mentioned above, it took on more meaning for me after I read the book. I find the writing on the "flames" a nifty metaphor for Lutz's writing style for this book and the tension it creates by dancing around the event that has so impacted these characters. When I was done reading I thought one of these days I would buy another copy to pull apart and read in chronological order to see how it read that way. It would still be a great story, but it would be missing some of the burn.


Marisa @The Daily Dosage said...

I have this one on hold at the library and now after reading your post, I can't wait!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Yay! Can't wait to hear what you think. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

crimeworm said...

This sounds interesting...and I love the cover!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Isn't it fantastic? One of my favorites of the year so far.

Shannon @ River City Reading said...

Okay, yes I need this. I was interested in it before, but you totally sold me.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

You totally do. Angst over decades, right up your alley. :)

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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