First off, Dzanc Books is a small publishing company full of wonderful people who develop really diverse works, and EVERYONE NEEDS TO CHECK THEM OUT NOW, because y’all are missing some amazing books and authors.
They sent me a few books recently, one of which was How to Set Yourself on Fire by Julia Dixon Evans.
I tried and failed to start this book a few times. At first glance, the narrator seemed moody, and I felt like I wasn’t going to like her.
Finally, I picked the thing up for once and for all, and I actually loved it.
When Sheila’s grandma dies, she hands over a secret box of letters, all from a man named Harold Carr, her grandma’s former neighbor. Sheila, entrusted with these forbidden letters, begins to obsess over their legacy. She reads through the letters hundreds of times; she imagines her grandma and Harold flirting between fences posts, and eventually, she even tries to track Harold down to learn the truth about her grandmother’s affair. Sheila enlists the help of her neighbor, Vinny and his daughter, 12-year-old Torrey. They form strange and strong bonds as they desperately follow the trail of lost love and passed time that the letters left behind.
- Sheila is super-weird. She is mildly offensive, socially awkward, unambiguous, and moody. She has a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease, and even goes so far as to stalk a guy. She has reckless, meaningless sex and seems really detached from it. I don’t do well with unlikeable characters, but I actually found Sheila to be really lovable. Her quirks and tendencies really seem to stem from intense social anxiety, and this, I can understand.
- Torrey is so funny. She is young, but totally smart, jaded, and witty. Her friendship with Sheila is really weird (a 12-year-old bonding with a 30+ year-old woman?), but it’s really enjoyable. Torrey’s boldness brings Sheila out of her shell and gives her a sense of acceptance that Sheila hasn’t found before. I could keep reading about these two forever.
- Relatedly, Sheila’s personal connections with everyone are really intriguing and carefully developed. The triangle of friendship between Sheila, Torrey, and Vinnie is unlikely at best, but it’s really charming.
- The book is kind of dark and sarcastic and bitter, at times. But eventually, the ending feels so happy and right. Sheila’s has a crappy adulthood, so when she finally finds her place, it’s so rewarding.