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House on Fire

Review

House on Fire

Intensely emotional and instantly gripping, Bonnie Kistler’s HOUSE ON FIRE is a masterfully written saga of family drama in the vein of Celeste Ng, Liane Moriarty and Sally Hepworth.

Living in 2019, you no doubt know, or are part of, a blended family --- a family consisting of a couple and their children from previous relationships. No one knows how much work it is to maintain a blended family than Kistler’s main character, divorce lawyer Leigh Huyett. Now five years into her own blended marriage with Pete Conley, Leigh is the proud mother of college-aged twin boys and 14-year-old Chrissy, and proud stepmother to high school senior Kip and 10-year-old Mia. On a rare evening away, with Mia at her mother’s and the older boys at college, Leigh and Pete leave troublemaker Kip in charge of Chrissy. Hours later, when they are driving home so that Leigh can meet a new client, they receive a terrifying call: there has been an accident, and a drunken Kip was driving with Chrissy in the passenger seat.

As the harried parents race to the police station, they are relieved to learn that their children are fine --- mostly. Their community enforces a zero-tolerance policy for minors driving under the influence, and Kip already has technically lost his license in a similar event months earlier, so he is facing little more than a slap on the wrist. Tired, annoyed and anxious, the family heads home to figure out their next steps. Unfortunately for them, this will be the last night they enjoy as a loving and peaceful blended family.

"This is an instantly compelling and compulsively readable novel, and I would not be surprised to see Kistler achieve the same level of fame as LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE author Celeste Ng."

The next day, as Leigh is meeting a prospective client, Chrissy suffers an aneurysm and is rushed to the ER, where she soon passes away. In the blink of an eye, the Huyett-Conley family is ripped apart, as Chrissy was always the unifier of the clan, with her boundless joy and carefree optimism. Leigh suffers through the next few days in a haze of grief, but her world comes into sharp focus when the police arrive at her daughter’s wake: Kip is being charged with manslaughter for his potential role in Chrissy’s death.

What follows is a tense and tautly plotted series of miscommunications, painful admissions and a slow-burn mystery. As Kip faces trial and a potentially lengthy sentence, Leigh and Pete find themselves taking sides --- Leigh swears she does not blame Kip, yet Pete has his son while her daughter is lost to her forever. When Kip suddenly changes his story and reveals that Chrissy was driving --- and he has a witness who can prove it (thus removing himself from any accountability in her death) --- Leigh and Pete are torn between trust, loyalty and the greater good of their perfectly blended family. Amidst their grief, anxiety and pain, they must ask themselves if blood is really thicker than water, and whose side they are actually on.

The title of this book is a reference to the Turkish proverb “A liar’s house is on fire, but no one believes him,” and Kistler expertly toys with truth and perspective. When Kip changes his story, it is easy for Leigh especially to believe that he is lying (and even easier for a desperate Pete to believe him), but there is enough murkiness to the truth to add an intense, compelling mystery to an already gripping book. As Leigh struggles to forgive Kip and grapple with her belief that he should be punished, she meets with a reverend/ethicist who forces her to confront her innermost feelings about honesty and deceit. Through Leigh, Kistler compels readers to ask themselves if there is ever a time when it is better to lie.

Kistler poses some interesting thoughts about lying, but where she truly shines is in her portrayal of family and the space we allow one another. The Huyett-Conleys are nearly perfect at the start and seem to have found a way not only to make second marriages work, but to bring together teens and children who otherwise never would have met. But when the cracks begin to surface, their careful relationships quickly falter, and even the smallest indiscretions lead to major eruptions.

Some of my favorite interactions were when Pete and Leigh spent the night apart, and both struggled with the urge to text or call the other, but feared coming on too strong during a particularly chaotic time. With both of them overthinking and wanting to respect the other, their messages often come across as terse and unfeeling, layering on even more feelings of resentment and hurt. As a reader, I nearly wanted to jump into the pages to grab them and exclaim, “Write what you are feeling!” Kistler’s interactions between her characters are all like this: nuanced, raw, cringeworthy and painful --- exactly the way they are in real life. She has a knack for putting life on the page, and the book is full of these tautly written and achingly relatable interactions.

For all of its highlights, HOUSE ON FIRE is difficult to summarize: this is one of those novels where nothing really happens because everything happens. A lot of the action takes place in the characters’ minds, and the rest in lawyer’s offices and courtrooms --- where spoilers abound. Leigh’s grief is especially psychologically gripping, and Kistler’s compassionate yet unflinching look into her pain will tug at any reader’s heart. Even troublemaker Kip has his moments of total relatability, and Pete is perhaps my favorite of the three, with his good intentions and loyal, all-encompassing love.

HOUSE ON FIRE is deeply immersive, and you will often find yourself debating the characters’ actions while also wondering what you yourself would do if you were Pete or Leigh or Kip. Just when the familial drama feels too overwhelming, Kistler swoops in with a new twist to the mystery of the night of the accident, and the way that she juxtaposes these storylines will make a fan of any reader.

This is an instantly compelling and compulsively readable novel, and I would not be surprised to see Kistler achieve the same level of fame as LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE author Celeste Ng.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 15, 2019

House on Fire
by Bonnie Kistler

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1501198688
  • ISBN-13: 9781501198687