Nothing to See Here

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 Payand 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.

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12 Responses to Nothing to See Here

  1. I’m glad you liked it and that you thought it worked, because different books work for different people, while others don’t (Moby-Dick being perhaps one of the best examples). I was so overcome with the hype around this book “wholly original,” “perfect,” etc., that I was inevitably disappointed. I remember more than 20 years ago Judy Budnitz had a short story called “Flying Leap,” where overenthusiastic cheerleaders caught fire, so I’m not sure that Wilson’s vaguely motivated combustible children are all that original. Lillian does what any halfway responsible person would do; the only surprising moment for me is that she became halfway responsible, since she starts out from near ground zero in the adulting category. For me this was a book toppled over by its expectations, like so many contemporary novels. And I gave up on “Briefly Gorgeous” because I saw it as another of those books of aphoristic scenelets that are intended to comprise a whole picture, but don’t. But then the book I’m obsessed with right now is “Howards End,” so I suppose that these contemporary confections don’t stand up well to one of the best books of the 20th century. I don’t think anyone will be reading “Nothing to See Here” in ten years.

    • Teresa says:

      I hadn’t seen much hype, so I didn’t have any expectations one way or the other, which no doubt helped. This may not be a book for the ages, but I don’t necessarily need that of every book I read. It was fun and sometimes moving, and when there’s so much darkness around I appreciate that.
      As far as Lillian doing what any halfway decent person would do, of course, you’re right. But her parents and grandparents didn’t even do that. I think the book does show the power of just taking the next halfway decent step when you’re so far down. Little by little, thinking of someone else can bring a person up.

  2. I haven’t felt led to pick this one up yet, but your review is making me think I should.

  3. I keep not wanting to read this but reviews like yours have me so tempted…

  4. writerrea says:

    Interesting. I haven’t read this one. This year’s ToB shortlist had several “didn’t finish” for me. I did finish On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which has some beautiful writing in it, but to me, felt like the poet overpowered the novelist at times, and the story would stop while some beautiful writing commenced.

    • Teresa says:

      The only DNF I’ve had was Optic Nerve, which I didn’t dislike, but didn’t particularly like. I think it helped that I read most of the truly mediocre ones when on my holiday break, which I spent at home, so I had lots of reading time and didn’t have to put them down so often. I’m planning to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous next, and from what you say, it sounds like it could go either way for me. We shall see!

  5. Ruthiella says:

    I think when I was first presented with the short list I was not terribly excited. But now after having read them all, I find it is a stronger line up than I thought initially. Even the few I really disliked are strong picks, just not to my taste as a reader.

    I really liked this book too. It was weird and occasionally dark but still a “feel good” novel in the end. I had read Wilson’s The Family Fang a few years ago which I recommend – you will probably like it for the same reasons you liked Nothing to See Here.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I read most of the “meh” books early on, so I wasn’t excited either, and the one book I gave up on (Optic Nerve) was very much a “not for me” book. I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

      My library has The Family Fang, so I’m adding it to my list!

  6. Care says:

    Yay! Great review. I especially agree with your assessment that it felt to provide “an emotional truth”. I hadn’t any expectations but this was fun and easily consumed, which lately I really really needed in my TOB books. (every time I pick up Trust Exercise, it feels like a slog but I don’t want to give it up, either which means I stall out again.)

    • Teresa says:

      Fun and easily consumed can be a very good thing. I’m really liking that kind of reading these days. I liked Trust Exercise, but it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I thought it might.

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