My Rating: ★★★★☆
Nothing to See Here follows Lillian, a woman in her late twenties who still lives with her mother, works dead-end jobs, and dates unsavoury men, whose life changes overnight when her old high school friend asks for her help in taking care of her husband’s ex-wife’s twins. The catch? The kids spontaneously burst into flames whenever they’re upset. What’s even more surprising than this revelation, however, is that Lillian actually accepts the job, and what follows is an offbeat, heart-warming story about friendship, family, and the bonds we form that transcend genetic and biological ties.
I have to admit that I was initially skeptical of this book. This bizarre and gimmicky premise, coupled with the deliberately ironic title, made me feel like it was trying too hard to be interesting. But I decided to give it a chance because, well, I was intrigued, and I wanted to see how Wilson would pull it off.
I’m glad I did, because Wilson does pull it off. He manages to avoid schmaltzy portrayals of family and family ties through his choice in tone and narrator. The entire story is told from Lillian’s perspective, and Lillian is funny and self-deprecating in a way that makes us feel like her humor is just a veneer for a deep cynicism at how her life turned out. To give an example of this, in the opening passage of the book, Lillian describes her old high school friend Madison and juxtaposes those with descriptions of herself. Madison’s existence is one “you only read about it magazines”, since she’s married to a senator and a mother to a little boy who looked like “an expensive teddy bear that had turned human”. On the other hand, Lillian says of herself: “I was working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, smoking weed in the attic of my mother’s house because when I had turned eighteen, she had immediately turned my childhood bedroom into a workout room. . . . You can imagine how Madison’s letters were a hundred times more interesting than mine,” she wryly concludes, “but we stayed in touch.”
Lillian also harbors a deep distrust of other people, and has a penchant for making succinct observations that sound like judgments, even when her language is ostensibly neutral. Of the person who picks Lillian up to bring her to Madison’s, Lillian says, “He looked like a man who was really into watches.” Of Madison’s father, she noted that “he looked like Andy Griffith, with that winking way of acknowledging you.”
The only people she doesn’t turn this sort of incisive gaze on is Madison and the twins. She has a soft spot for them, made all the more apparent because of how much she dislikes other people. It’s through Lillian’s unsentimental voice that we are able to experience normally corny and melodramatic moments – such as her winning the trust of the twins – with the fullness of the original emotions they intended to convey.
Wilson is also good at writing children. He dismantles the usual tropes of children as innocent angels or too wise for their age, and instead writes Roland and Bessie, the twins, as difficult, but no less deserving of love. When Lillian arrives to pick them up from their grandparents’ home, they put up a fight, kicking and scratching her and then bursting into flames afterwards. They’re vicious and feral, but also fiercely protective of each other, and like all other non-combusting children, starved for affection and genuine acceptance. And while Lillian has no experience in child-care, she turns out to be exactly what the twins need – someone who understands them, and someone weird enough to let their weirdness be.
The rest of the novel goes on to show the development of the relationship between Lillian and the twins, and the friendship between Lillian and Madison. But it’s really the genuine tenderness between Lillian, Roland, and Bessie that warms the heart.
They would always, kind of, belong to me. I had never wanted kids, because I had never wanted a man to give me a kid. The thought of it, gross; the expectation of it. But if a hole in the sky opened up and two weird children fell to earth, smashing into the ground like asteroids, then that was something I could care for. If it gleamed like it was radiating danger, I’d hold it. I would.
This novel isn’t perfect. There were a number of loose ends, like the origin of the twins’ combustion, and there were some themes that were touched on only in passing – such as issues of class and politics – that could have been given more substantial treatment. In the end, I even wondered if the whole “kids that can spontaneously combust” premise was necessary in the first place. But despite all that, I found this to be a light-hearted yet insightful about the nature of family and human relationships. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting read.
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from January 14-15, 2020