Reviewed by Jay Korrell
“A pleasant and honest look into the life of an imperfect person.”
Sheila is a thirty-five-year-old mostly unemployed woman, and she might be my new favorite person. From battling her unshakeable desire to stalk her delivery man to rereading a love note that wasn’t even intended for her, she acts as a unique, hilarious, and vibrant character that you can’t help but root for in How to Set Yourself on Fire (Dzanc Books, 2018).
When her grandmother’s health begins to deteriorate, Sheila’s journey truly begins. “My grandmother is very old, and tonight, she’ll die in her sleep. But right now, she says, ‘I have something to tell you, sweet girl.’” When she wakes up and her grandmother has indeed passed, Sheila has to use a clever dose of lighthearted lies and deception to find the gift that her grandmother had planned on giving her: a small box of letters documenting her grandmother’s time in her early 20s, conversing with a man who lived in the house behind hers.
In just a short time, the letters become Sheila’s new obsession. They bring her closer to her own neighbors, as well as somehow simultaneously creating increased distance and connection with her mother. The letters help Sheila better engage with her past and present, and it all feels so achingly familiar to me.
“’Shelia, that’s disgusting,’ he said. I was only eleven but I already knew that he shouldn’t shame a child like this. My mother would stop him if she were home. “’Just eat it properly, would you?’” I picked up the slice and took a bite. I felt exactly as disgusting as I was told I was.”
Before I get to anything else, I’ve got to talk about Sheila. Author Julia Dixon Evans does an incredible job developing her character. This honest first-person narrator is just the woman without a filter that I want to listen to: She’s honest, funny, and shares all of the emotions that some readers might not feel brave enough to confront. By going along with her in How to Set Yourself on Fire, the reader gets to see the benefits of letting yourself become vulnerable and learning to move forward. She’s not always easy to understand, and it makes her all the more charming.
Sheila and her twelve-year-old neighbor Torrey present a wildly entertaining dynamic in the novel. As far as adulting goes, I think it’s safe to say that Sheila still has some room to grow. Meanwhile, Torrey proves to be remarkably mature for her age and never hesitant to let Sheila know that she is acting like a complete spaz. The two interact as equals in the novel, allowing the reader to recognize when they’ve learned from one another and how they’ll continue to grow moving forward.
How to Set Yourself on Fire deserves every one of its five stars—and maybe more. I connected with Sheila deeply, while also laughing at and with her. I flipped ferociously through the ends of each chapter, continuing to search for how she would learn, adapt, and maybe in the end inspire me to do the same.
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