How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

How to Start a Fire How to Start a Fire

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 337 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Read: June 5 – 6, 2015
I really enjoyed Lisa Lutz’s latest, best, and most mature novel and want to encourage you to give it a read. That said, I’m not really sure how to start this post — or how to finish it, now that I think about it. It’s not really a plot-driven book, it’s more about the relationships between the three main characters, and others in their lives. But, it’s really difficult to talk about the book without talking about the two (maybe three) plot points that drive the whole thing.

Early on, I jotted down the note, “I’m either going to love or hate this book,” and while I stayed in the former camp, I could easily see where some wouldn’t (a quick skim of goodreads today, suggests I was right). This book plays with chronology, skipping around throughout the 20+ year history of the characters (plus some in-chapter flashbacks), with no easily noticeable pattern. So, in the first few chapters (most of Part One), once I started a new chapter, I’d have to flip back to the first page of the 3-4 previous chapters to make sure I was placing the current one in the right spot on my mental timeline. Eventually, I didn’t have to physically turn the pages, and was able to re-arrange things without much thought — and I know two other readers that experienced the same

At its core, How to Start a Fire is about the relationships of three women over time, from meeting in college through everything that happens over the next twenty plus years — ups, downs, fights, make-ups, forgiveness, betrayal, estrangement, personal growth, self-destruction, and the ability of friendship to forget all of that and just care in the moment. To boil it down to its essence: real friendship.

I had to repeatedly remind myself that this was a Lisa Lutz novel, it didn’t feel like one. Not any of The Spellman Files or Heads you Lose, this was a totally different creature (not being a mystery novel plays into that, obviously). Of course, like with my fixation on chronology eventually I got into the book and stopped caring about that. Most of the humor is different, most of the heart is different — the types of people are different, too. Still, the humor is solid, the heart is genuine, and the people are, y’know, people.

Yet . . . there’s no denying the Lutz DNA here. The three main characters were aggressively quirky like Izzy or Rae, Anna ‘s brother could’ve been David), and Malcom has a very Henry-esque quality. There’s so much more about the novel to think about than the parallels to the Spellman books. I don’t want to focus on it, but I did make those notes at one point. I think if I hadn’t written it down, I’d have forgotten about it by the time I reached the end.

This is Chick Lit that can be appreciated by the non-Chick reader* — there’s a little bit of something for just about everything in these pages, laughs, chuckles, an “Aww” or three, and maybe a something to make your eyes misty. It’s a bit too fresh for me to confirm this, but I’m betting this is one of those novels that rewards re-reads (especially when you’re not trying to figure out what’s going on in the opening chapters). Not my favorite Lutz book, but probably her best — and it demonstrates what many of her readers have suspected: she can write whatever she sets her mind to. Frankly, I want something back in the comedy/crime area again, but I’ll line up for whatever.

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* Which is the mark of the best of Chick-Lit — or any genre — even those outside the target demographic can appreciate it.

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4 Stars

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

The Last Word
The Last Word by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the constant battles in The Spellman Files has been Izzy’s struggle with maturity and responsibility — there are people who just don’t grow up, who are locked into an eternal childhood. And then there are people like Izzy who have waged war on their impending adulthood. Her struggles are at times as trying to the reader as they are for those closest to her — friends/family/boyfriends — but primarily they amuse us (this is due to the skill of the Lutz more than Izzy’s inherent charm). Trail of the Spellmans ended with Izzy taking some determined steps towards maturity, however reluctantly, and The Last Word starts off showing how poorly that’s going.

Oddly enough, given her determined adolescence, I’ve always liked Izzy most when she’s interacting with the elderly (other than her grandmother — but I don’t know who could be likable while dealing with her). Early on, it was Mort Schilling — who I’ve missed, and now we get Edward Slayter and Charlie. While they serve similar roles in the narratives (a mature advisory/near-parental voice that Izzy sort-of listens to), Mr. Slayter and Charlie aren’t anywhere as amusing as Mort was.

These are ostensibly mystery novels, and there are a handful this time ’round. More than one of which focuses on Mr. Slayter (keeping this vague for spoiler reasons), so we see Izzy at her strongest. There’s some mysterious antics involving Rae, of course — and I’ve found these stories to be harder to enjoy lately, even more than Izzy’s Pernella Pan syndrome. And the requisite mystery about what Albert and Olivia are up to — once this moves beyond them repaying Izzy for being such a lousy and defiant employee/daughter for yeas, this becomes the emotional core of the book and is probably the best use of these characters in the series. The other cases are entertaining enough, and definitely provide a good balance to the more emotionally charged and serious plot lines.

Maybe it’s just me, but I sound negative about this book so far. And I don’t mean to! As always, it’s a pleasure to spend time with these characters and in this world. Izzy’s TV taste remains impeccable. And Lutz’s breezy style can carry even the most problematic characters and stories in a way that seems effortless (and is undoubtedly very difficult to do successfully). The character development here is a natural — and needed — progression from Trail, even if it means this isn’t the laughter-filled read the first few were. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with where this book left the family and business, but I understand (and would defend) the choices Lutz made — and I’m sure in a few weeks, I’ll only look back on this novel positively. But right now, my reaction to the last couple of chapters are coloring my mood.

Still, highly recommended — throughout the reading of this, I had fantasies of taking a few days off work to do nothing but re-read this series back-to-back, and that still sounds like a great way to spend some downtime.

Dusted Off: Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz, David Hayward

Heads You LoseHeads You Lose by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a hook, what a killer (no pun intended) concept–an established mystery writer sends off a chapter of a new novel to an ex-boyfriend, asking him to collaborate with her on the novel. She’ll take the odd-numbered chapters, him the even. Interspersed in these chapters are emails sent back and forth, along with other comments they make on the other’s work, as the two stumble through the writing process.

And while that’s amusing enough, the actual novel ends up being a pretty good read. In a small California town, a pot-growing brother and sister team find a headless body in their backyard. They try (a couple of times) to dispose of the body so they can continue their growing without police interference, and then take it upon themselves to solve this murder (and the others that follow). A very unlikely crime stopping pair, to be sure.

The novel is filled with quirky characters, twists and turns that no one (even 50% of the authors) can see coming. Far more than just a catchy hook–Heads You Lose is an entertaining crime novel that’ll leave you wanting more.