Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Review: "Things We Set on Fire" by Deborah Reed

Old tensions, hurts, and unresolved arguments between family members are never fun to actually experience, but they're fodder for a treasure trove of fantastic books, movies, television shows, and plays. Deborah Reed's new novel, Things We Set on Fire, is an exquisitely rendered story about the hurts we don't forget and what they drive us to do, as well as the things we think we understand and the truths we rarely do.

When a tragedy reunites Vivvie with both of her estranged daughters, and introduces her to her two young granddaughters for the first time, it's almost more than she can bear. Memories of her husband's tragic death in a hunting accident nearly 30 years before haunt her, and the incident and its aftermath was enough to send both of her daughters fleeing their home as soon as they could, and fleeing each other as well.

"Why did everything have to go unspoken between Vivvie and Elin? Unspoken but not unaware. Why did they feel the need to play this game of fool you/fool me that neither was winning or would ever win?"

Vivvie's older daughter, Elin, is the midst of her own crisis when her mother summons her home to Florida, so leaving Portland seems like the logical thing to do. But Elin has run before, and it cost her more than she ever imagined. And returning home reopens wounds that had never really healed, and forces her to confront incidents from her past that she had hoped never to deal with again.

"Her sister was a stranger whose life had existed outside of Elin's understanding, hidden from her affections, an outsider with a warmth and affection all her own, uncloaked inside this house, broadcast in everything around her, the faces of her daughters the most staggering display."

So often in life problems stem from jumping to the wrong conclusions or simply leaving things unsaid in the hopes they're already understood. As Vivvie and her daughters come together again, they have to relive memories from long ago and accept the correct answers to questions they've always had. Yet while these do bring more pain, they also bring catharsis, as only through clarity can they start to heal and move on with their lives.

This is a beautifully written book about trying to come together after so much has transpired through so many years. Deborah Reed does a wonderful job in creating flawed characters that evoke your sympathies, and demonstrating how, much like real life, what we think we know and see is often quite different than what is true. Reed's story is painful, emotional, and moving, and her language is tremendously poetic. While you may not have experienced any of these issues that the characters in Things We Set on Fire did, the emotions the characters deal with are nearly universal, which increases its power. Well done.

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