Deborah Reed's new novel Things We Set On Fire (Lake Union) is, in many ways, exactly what its memorable title would suggest. It is both dramatic and matter-of-fact, evocative and simple. It is intimate and personal, yet also speaks to something larger.
The novel follows a Florida family who are anything but close. Yet after tragedy brings the widowed Vivvie's granddaughters back into her life, the small family is forced to reckon with each other once again. The book traces Vivvie's relationship with her two daughters and their estranged relationship with one another, and does so with an elegant and emotionally honest grace that is a genuine treat to read.
Like any family, the characters in this novel think they know each other, but as the book gently moves between their perspectives, it is clear just how much of a mystery each family member really is to those around them. Reed peels back the layers of her characters' relationships in way that feel organic and meaningful.
A large part of this effect derives from Reed's ability to weave in and out of flashbacks within a sequence, rather than segregating them off. The technique, which is used so seamlessly a careless reader might not even notice the shift out of the present and into the past, makes the past relevant to the reader in the same way it is relevant to the characters. As we delve deeper and deeper into the family web of secrets and betrayals great and small, the family portrait which emerges blazes with emotional honesty.
Perhaps the only place where Reed does falter is in the dialogue, which becomes increasingly unlikely towards the end of the novel when characters express themselves in phrases perhaps best left to the narration. "I have no idea what to do with the weight of such a thing," for instance, does not come easily to the lips of most people in real life, especially not Vivvie's usually terse daughter Elin.
But even this does not seriously mar the beautifully tangled story the book provides. As in real life and real families, nothing is simple or neat. No assumptions are safe, and no assessments are final. And yet, at its core, the novel is about people who love each other through all the heartbreak and betrayal, even if love doesn't make their anger or their hurt go away.
Things We Set On Fire is about tragedy, and about what comes after; about the wounds that families inflict on one another and the ways is which they heal; about the little moments and the grand ones that define relationships; and about people all searching for peace in their own ways.