A month ago, I was pretty discouraged with this year’s Tournament of Books line up. Everything I read from the shortlist was just … fine. Sometimes pretty good. Sometimes worth discussing. But nothing was knocking my socks off. Well, now, after Mary Toft, Girl Woman Other, Your House Will Pay, and Nothing to See Here, I can say that this year’s TOB has brought me four fantastic reads. (I have yet to read All This Could Be Yours and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.)
I freely admit that Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is completely ridiculous on multiple levels. And the children who catch on fire is probably the least ridiculous of the ridiculous things. Perhaps most ridiculous is the simple fact that fiery 10-year-old twins are placed in the care of 28-year-old Lillian, a childhood friend of their step-mother. Their father, Jasper Roberts, a senator from Tennessee, is likely to become the next Secretary of State, and he wants these troublesome kids kept out of the way, but their mother’s recent death has left him entirely responsible for them. That’s how Lillian gets involved. Madison, Jasper’s wife, went to boarding school with Lillian, and they’ve stayed in touch ever sense. For some reason, Madison decided Lillian was the right person to keep these children quietly cared for and secret for the summer, until some other arrangements could be made. It is a preposterous plan, not just because Lillian has shown no interest in children, much less children who spontaneously catch on fire.
But, here’s the thing, as ridiculous as it all is, it works. There’s an emotional truth inside this book that makes it work. Lillian and twins Bessie and Roland need each other. They have no reason to know it, but somehow the prickliness and desperation of all three characters comes together to make … maybe … a family. Lillian really doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she just does what she can think of … then she does the next thing … and the next. It feels like how many (most) of us operate in the face of a crisis. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but a choice comes and we make it, and sometimes we surprise ourselves by getting it right. For Lillian, caring seems to be the key. She finally has someone to care about, and all her decisions come from that.
I also loved the way Wilson depicted Bessie and Roland. I’ve not been around 10-year-olds recently enough to know how authentic these kids are, but they felt real. They observe and understand more than adults realize, but they’re still figuring out how to manage their feelings. They know that their life is badly off course, but they don’t know what to do about it any more than Lillian knows how to take care of kids. So they, like Lillian, just make the next choice, and the next.
There are also some interesting things going on here regarding class, money, and power, but none of that is as powerful to me as the key relationships in the book. I loved spending time with this trio in their little ridiculous and impossible world.