How to Set Yourself on Fire, by Julia Dixon Evans, is a quirky story in the vein of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, only sweeter.
Sheila, 35, is a mess. She can’t hold down a job, she barely sleeps, and when she does it’s often on the stoop of her run-down rental in LA. Vinnie, her slovenly but fleetingly charming neighbor, lives across the cement courtyard, their apartments so close Sheila can hear Vinnie’s Skype conversations with his ex-wife and 12-year old daughter, Torrey, as if Sheila is in the room with them. Their physical surroundings reflect Vinnie and Sheila’s relationship—distant, wary, weirdly intimate.
“You can’t just write Pop-Tarts, Dad,” Torrey says.
“Listen, this is the most detailed grocery list I’ve ever made. The only time I’ve ever used capital letters.” I could hear the smile in Vinnie’s voice. I was on the couch in my tiny place, lying with my head flat on the seat and my feet up on the armrest, a portable fan pointed directly at me.” (p.12)
When she inherits a box of love letters written to her deceased grandmother, Rosamond, Sheila spends hours sorting, cataloguing, reading and re-reading the letters. They were written to Rosamond by her neighbor, Harold C. Carr, who is not Sheila’s grandfather, part of a love story that took place half a century ago. Rosamond’s half of the letters are absent, possibly lost forever.
This is not the only letter Sheila is obsessed with. She also keeps a letter, written by the UPS driver who used to deliver to one of her jobs, carefully preserved in her bedside drawer. This love letter was written to someone Sheila has never met, part of a web of lost connections that include Sheila’s abandonment by her father, who left her and her mother when Sheila was a child.
When Torrey comes to live with her father after her mother dies in a freak skydiving accident, Torrey and Sheila develop an unlikely friendship around the letters. Smart, resilient, and wise-beyond-her-years, Torrey has little interest in Sheila’s morose self-absorption. Torrey, though, does know something of loss.
As Torrey nudges Sheila to find out more about Harold C. Carr and the missing half of the letters, Sheila finds herself doing things like going to the library with Torrey, things a parent might do with a child, but that Sheila has never done before. For Torrey, Sheila provides a tentative comfort. In caring for Sheila, Torrey is caring, in a safe way, for the broken parts of herself. For Sheila, Torrey is something brand new.
“And then it occurs to me: if Torrey walked right out of my life right now, never to return, I’d be crushed. I’m already in too deep. It’s not like she’s a normal friend. She’s not a sister. She’s not a daughter. She’s something else–someone I don’t have to care about, but I do.” (p. 171)
As Sheila and Torrey’s relationship develops, Sheila and Vinnie grow closer in their own desultory, halting way, two damaged survivors of broken relationships, Vinnie’s with his ex-wife, and Sheila with her father.
“Vinnie comes out. He sits on my step because he only has two chairs in the courtyard, the ones Torrey and I are in. He nods at us and lights up to smoke. Torrey hands him the ashtray.
“I can’t believe you endorse his nasty habit,” I say.
“What are you ladies doing?” Vinnie asks.
“Talking,” Torrey says. I’m not looking at her to see if she rolls her eyes but the nostalgia I feel for my own adolescence is heavy.” (124-125)
Together, they form a sassy, poignant band of misfits. Their relationships with one another are the greatest strength of the novel. The unfolding mystery surrounding the letters helps propel the plot, as does Sheila’s relationship with her mother, but the novel sings in the scenes between Sheila, Torrey and Vinnie. In their own post-modern, fallen Eden, with its “hideous faded green lawn furniture, nestled in our shared concrete not-lawn” (p.55), Sheila, Vinnie and Torrey stumble together, drawn by their conflicting desire to be known, to be loved, without the devastating, but inevitable risk of loss.
How to Set Yourself on Fire is a sharply seen, often witty, sometimes tender, ultimately hopeful story told through brave, flawed, not always likeable characters who came fully alive on the page and who will remain with you after the last page is turned.