The Short Version: When college roommates Anna and Kate find Georgianna passed out on a lawn, their duo becomes a trio. Over the next twenty years, they grow up (or try to) while making various mistakes and achieving unexpected successes, all with the shadow of one fateful night in college that irrevocably changed all three of them.
The Review: I was lucky enough to have parents with good taste. Questionable, sometimes – and our definitions of good have shifted variably through the years – but mostly good. I bring this up because it was my mom who, one random birthday or holiday or just-because day many years ago, bought me The Spellman Files on a whim because she thought the cover was fun and the synopsis sounded even more fun. I’d never heard of it, I had no idea. Some eight-ish years later, I’m still reading Lisa Lutz and still thanking my mom for picking a good one.
How to Start a Fire is Lutz’s first big standalone novel (if you don’t count her quirky experiment with David Hayward, Heads You Lose) and, as with any author who moves away from their long-running series and characters, you worry if it’ll be the same. But Lutz is no one-trick pony and Kate, Anna, and George are just as captivating, interesting, and fully realized as Izzy Spellman. Just as importantly, Lutz hasn’t let go of the things she’s best at: humor & the complex inner lives of her characters.
To the first point, I can’t think of many funnier authors than Ms. Lutz. She brings a screwball sensibility to her work, a kind of wackiness that is all the funnier for the idea that it could absolutely happen to you. Little things like the three girls starting a game in college where they show up at a random somebody’s dorm and within 15 minutes have started a full-blown party there – it’s silly, it’s smart, and the humor has a whole lot of heart in it.
Speaking of heart, that brings me to the second point: the complexity and reality of these characters. Nobody who has come through a Lutz novel has ever felt like anything other than somebody you could walk outside and meet on the street; it’s as though she’s captured real people and dropped them inside of her novels.They might not actually be people that you know, but they sure as hell could be. She makes this seem easy when such tricks are truly anything but.
Speaking of tricks, let’s talk about the novel’s structure. Lutz spins us through time, hopping from 1994 to 2014 with both ease and the assumption that readers will just keep up. This is a reasonable assumption, although I have to assume many readers will struggle to do so, expecting something a little easier. And I’ll admit that at times I had to pause and let my brain buffer for a moment while I tried to put together who was where doing what at that point in time. With the three ladies, it was easy enough – but I sometimes crossed my fingers and held on through what some of the supporting cast were doing in the hopes that the whole picture would come together as I read. Amazingly, it did. You can, it seems, take the mystery writer out of the mysteries but not vice versa: there is the vaguest hint of a puzzle to be put together here and the satisfaction as the final pieces click into place in the concluding chapter is surprisingly strong. I would never call this book a mystery, although I think in retrospect it could be classified lightly as such because of how (and I know what a groan this statement is going to be) life can be a mystery at times.
But that’s what the book really makes you think about. We fall into these connections with people, sometimes through blood but most often through bond, and it’s surprising how our lives turn out as a result. Forget the people you went to high school with – how many of them do you still speak to? But think about the people you went to college with, the ones who stuck around. I’ll bet you have a tight group, perhaps an even tighter inner circle. Now think back to how you met – the nearly incalculable odds that you and even just one of those people would come together and become friends. Kate and Anna could’ve passed George by, they could’ve taken a different path, they could’ve left earlier or later. Instead, they found her and lugged her into a shopping cart and brought her home. But what feels like randomness so quickly, through the lens of history, feels like a kind of destiny. The second-to-last chapter, which reveals the actual story behind the big event that reverberates through these women’s lives, reads like that; we know these women so well and have seen them come through so much that of course that was how it all happened. How could it honestly have been any other way?
This feeling of destiny-lite (not the magical preordained kind, but the kind constructed after the fact) applies more broadly to all three of these brilliant characters – they do feel destined, in the least ethereal way, to become the people they are trying to become throughout the novel. George’s seemingly unfillable longing for some kind of love, Anna’s brash and dangerous inability to not follow her impulses, Kate’s ability to find contentment in anything… they help define each other, even by their absences. Chapters that focus solely on one of the three still have a ghost-like after-image of the other two, lingering nearby.
And that’s the best thing about friends, really. You are your own person but they’re the ones who helped get you there, even when they weren’t around.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A full-bodied, hilarious, heartfelt, honest tale of three friends who meet in college and what happens over the next twenty years. Sounds like something you’ve read before, but this book is a fresh take in nearly every way. Whether it’s the spectacular time-hopping feat of construction or just Lutz’s considerable talents as a crafter of characters and situations, it’s easy to find something special about this story. And it proves that Lutz’s talents extend far beyond her mystery novels: she’s a great writer, no matter the genre.
Oh and just to speak to the lite hubbub rightly raised by John Warner in his column about this book… this ain’t women’s fiction; it’s just fiction. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
(PS if you haven’t read any of Lisa Lutz’s tremendous The Spellman Files series, stop what you’re doing and go pick up the first one (which happens to just be called The Spellman Files). You’ll thank me later.)