How to Set Yourself on Fire: A Novel by Julia Dixon Evans


The world is a wall of heavy noise. I want to take a big breath exactly as much as I want to stop breathing.

Sheila’s life isn’t full, she spends much of her time listening to Torrey, her neighbor Vinnie’s daughter, grow up through the walls of her apartment, working dead-end jobs with zero ambition, and dodging calls from her mother. Rosamund, her Grandmother, has just passed away and left behind a shoebox full of letters from one Harold C. Carr. A shoebox  her mother doesn’t know she has, letters she was meant to bury to honor Rosamund’s wishes. Sheila’s father is a distant memory, her mother nothing but a headache. With the sad truth that she was never close to her grandmother, the mysterious letters reveal a sad affair that began with her mother’s (a child at the time) destroyed beloved doll and the hard truth about the difficult life Rosamund couldn’t dare leave, not even for love. Sheila is consumed by her grandmother’s past, easier than dealing with her own painful childhood and the black hole where her father once stood. The lover’s letters aren’t the only missives she builds stories upon. There is the UPS man , Jesse Ramirez’s dropped personal letter that sits in a ziplock in her nightstand drawer. A letter she cherishes and cannot return to him, as she should. A line she memorized, a feeling she wishes someone felt about her, is like a drug that fills her lonely heart. The job was her last-ditch attempt at normalcy, her therapist gave her ‘mild’ meds. “I hated her for calling me mild.  I hated how she could posit to measure feelings on a chart, in a table, with a thermometer.”

When Vinnie and his daughter Torrey suffer a tragedy, Sheila slowly begins to befriend the young girl and it’s painfully and beautifully awkward. She is beyond rusty when it comes to people, relationships. Her grandmother’s affair saddens her, knowing the choice she made and how her life played out, that she is the legacy, a mess of a granddaughter, directionless, unable to anchor anywhere. Her family has issues with bonding, unable as a child to dare ask her mother where her father is, why he isn’t in their life any longer. Her mother always a bit cold, distant, unable to be the sort of mother we all hope for. Sad more for never really knowing her grandmother than about her passing, her mother trying to contain what she sees as her mother’s ‘shameful’ secret by not honoring her last request, unaware that through the letters Sheila knows everything. There is a moment in the novel when Sheila sees a picture, a favorite of her mother’s with her own parents, one that shows how much Sheila and her mother looked alike as children. She says “It almost hurts how much she looked like me. I want to be as different from her as possible and she wants to be as close to me as possible.” The lines are a gut punch, and hint at the damaged mother/daughter relationship. Nosing through her grandmother’s letters, she begins to understand her own mother’s relationship with her grandmother Rosamund.

Working temp jobs, she has a special gift for working even that system. She isn’t exactly respectable, in fact seems to struggle with being an adult altogether. Interacting with Vinnie after an accident involving his ex-wife, her tasteless questions expose her social ineptidue.She doesn’t mean to be so ridiculously clueless, such a mess.  I spent so much of this novel cringing from her behavior, which is why I loved it so much. It’s hard to relate to perfect characters, I have a weak spot for the wounded, for strays. I adore the relationship between she and Torrey. Torrey is happy to join the quest in finding out if Harold is still alive, if Rosamund’s letters to him still exist. Unlike other fiction, it stays in the realms of reality, where not everything turns out the way you expect it.

Through Torrey’s savvy, there could be a way to locate this Harold, but like Torrey tells her when she proposes the idea and Sheila isn’t ready, ” You’re weird. You do things weirdly.” Sheila is a strange bird, her inheritance is pretending everything is normal as the roof caves in. For me, the letter she cherishes that isn’t hers to hoard, that belongs to the UPS man, that is like a drug for her says more about her state of loneliness and need. It leads to a strange obsession that is important to the novel, yet not the entire center of it. It is through Torrey she starts to abandon her quiet life, begins to see the real problem lies within herself, even if her mother shoulders a fair amount of the blame. At what point do we move on and stop blaming others for who we have become?

Vinnie is important too, they begin a relationship too, minus strings and while he is mostly on the periphery of the story, he has his big moments, particularly toward the end. The most important relationships are between all the women. The bonds are imperfect, but there could be room for healing.

A moving story about a woman who is stunted, until her grandmother’s past affair and  precocious young neighbor inject life into her. Lovely.


Available Now

Dzanc Books


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