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How to Start a Fire


How to Start a Fire

At the end of the acknowledgments section that closes HOW TO START A FIRE, author Lisa Lutz thanks her female friends, "the weird friends, the ones who inspired the book by being unique and strange and completely of themselves." The complexities and resilience and, yes, weirdness of female friendships are at the heart of Lutz's latest, which traces a group of three college friends through their young adulthood. When we first meet Anna, Kate and George, they are undergraduates at UC-Santa Cruz, thick as thieves despite their varying backgrounds. We also see them at close to the present day, clearly wounded and even scarred by things that have happened to them jointly and separately, their friendship both more fragile and more powerful than before.

What happened to these women between college and their late 30s? How have they changed, and what has remained the same? Lutz, who is probably best known for her series of six murder mysteries starring the private investigator Spellman family, uses a rapid-fire storytelling method to disorient readers and build suspense. In a series of short chapters, Lutz freely moves backwards and forwards in time, creating several longer narratives whose full structure is only revealed gradually and whose questions are answered gradually, too. The result is a novel that keeps readers on their toes, even as it draws them in.

"Over the course of Lutz's energetically plotted novel, we have the opportunity to piece together what happened to these three promising young women."

On paper, Anna, Kate and George probably never should have been friends at all. But in the peculiar ways of college life, they find themselves developing intense and fiercely loyal friendships, ones that persist and remain far more meaningful than the sort of friendships the women develop later in life, ones that are shaped more by geographic proximity or, in George's case at least, the mere fact that they have children. George eventually has three kids by the time she's in her late 30s; she's also been divorced three times. George is by far the most beautiful of the three friends, but seems fated to fall in love with good-looking men who treat her poorly.

Kate is the odd duck of the group; born and raised in Santa Cruz, she wants nothing more than to inherit her grandfather's diner and spend the rest of her life keeping up the old place. Passionately curious about the world and eager to learn about everything from mushrooms to forest fires, she nevertheless lacks any kind of traditional ambition. Unlike her friends, she also seems to lack a desire for romance.

And then there's Anna, the impetuous one of the bunch, the one who is bold and fearless and also prone to blithely self-destructive behavior. The daughter of a wealthy Boston family, Anna has something to prove, but when she loses the one person who means everything to her, she might be in danger of losing herself, too.

When we see George, Kate and Anna on the verge of turning 40, they, and their relationships, are in crisis. Over the course of Lutz's energetically plotted novel, we have the opportunity to piece together what happened to these three promising young women. And along the way, we have a chance to consider what friendship means, what sparks it, and what causes it to persist through time, geography and more than a crisis or two.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 15, 2015

How to Start a Fire
by Lisa Lutz

  • Publication Date: May 17, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544705181
  • ISBN-13: 9780544705180