Fire Children and Parrots - Two Female-Focused F**k-up Novels
I have a very special soft spot in my heart for books about fuck-ups. From Arthur Nersesian's aptly titled THE FUCK-UP to C.D. Payne's YOUTH IN REVOLT to the high school homework assignment gold standard that is J.D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I enjoy reading novels about people burying themselves neck-deep in bad decisions - the literary equivalent of cringe comedies (one of my favorite sub-genre of cinema).
Most of these books (all of them?) are about male protagonists - scruffy, lazy, misanthropic jerks who make me feel slightly better about my own track record on decision making. But fuck-ups come in both genders and I'm glad to have read two great female fuck-up books this summer.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson
Yesterday it was announced that James Ponsoldt (THE SPECTACULAR NOW, SMASHED) is in talks to direct an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s novel NOTHING TO SEE HERE. The screenplay for the adaptation was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber, who previously worked with Ponsoldt on THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Based on Ponsoldt's past work, he is the perfect director to tackle Wilson’s novel, a laugh-out-loud funny story about a misanthropic woman who is tasked with being a nanny to two children who have a tendency to catch on fire when agitated.
Lillian had a rough childhood growing up. Her father wasn’t around, her mom didn’t particularly care for her and she was too smart and too clever to fit in with her classmates and neighbors in the small, backwoods town she grew up in. Things began to look up, though, when Lillian was given a scholarship to attend an elite boarding school in Tenessee. It was at this school that Lillian meets her best friend, Madison. Madison, despite being insanely rich and unbelievably pretty, is just as weird as Lillian. The two became close friends, even as their paths diverge in life.
Now, an aimless adult coating her way through minimal wage jobs and still living with her mom, Lillian jumps at a chance to move in with Madison and take care of her two step-children, a pair of feral kids who were homeschooled by their now dead, mentally ill mother. Oh, and when they get worked up, they catch on fire.
By the way, spontaneous combustion is probably real - but not the way you might expect. In Susan Cheever's excellent DRINKING IN AMERICA: OUR SECRET HISTORY, she writes about how the early cases of spontaneous combustion that helped spread the myth of this unexplained phenomenon were probably caused by people drinking very high proof alcohol and then belching next to the multitude of lit candles that kept establishments illuminated before the invention of lightbulbs. But I degrees...
Lillian must navigate the prickly social situation she finds herself in with Lillian's new family - her childhood friend married a senator who is being looked at for a primo government position within the White House - while also trying her best to civilize two children who have learned to distrust everybody they meet. Can a misanthrope cure two children of their own misanthropic tendencies? Or will they just set their world on fire?
Wilson, the author of THE FAMILY FANG, writes with such an unassuming but deeply personal voice. Lillian is an amazingly complex character, a damaged but desperate woman who wants a friend but, despite her better judgment, finds a family. The book is sweet without being saccharine and raunchy in the best way possible.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE is a wonderful read about a woman who has given up on her own potential trying her best to convince two children they have what it takes to get their own lives in order and stop catching fire.
TREASURE ISLAND!!! by Sarah Levine.
This wonderful novel is narrated by a young woman who makes the decision to live her life according to the philosophy of Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND. This seemingly innocuous decision leads the unnamed protagonist down a glorious path of toxicity.
The novel's unnamed narrator is in her mid-twenties and works at a Pet Library, renting out animals to people who can't commit to owning a pet. She's dating a boy she doesn't love - but who's a good kisser - has a more successful, but less attractive sister who she competes with for her parents' attention and - in general - is drifting through life when she discovers the words of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s pirate classic.
Boldness, resolution, independence, horn-blowing - these are some of the core values that the novel’s protagonist takes away from the book. She buys a parrot, ruins her sister’s life, steals money from her employer, and mooches off her well-meaning, if emotionally distracted, parents. As her life continues to sail off-course and she poisons her relationships one-by-one, the novel's narrator just becomes more and more obsessed with the pirate book - annotating it to death as she strip-mines it for meaning.
Funny and sad in all the best ways, TREASURE ISLAND!!! is one of the best books I've read in years. Levine's voice is razor-sharp and her emotional truth cutting - this book perfectly balances quirkiness and raw, bleeding honesty about the way people all too frequently let their lives spin out of control for no reason other than their own self-chosen propensity for fucking up.
I love TREASURE ISLAND!!! so much and I know for a fact that I'm going to keep reading this novel every few years until my eyes cease to work.