Skip to main content

How to Set a Fire and Why


How to Set a Fire and Why

Lucia, the teenaged protagonist of Jesse Bell’s HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY, is the kind of precocious, insightful, brutally honest narrator whose voice enters the reader’s consciousness and won’t leave easily. Like Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn, she fearlessly points out the contradictions and outright hypocrisies of the world, especially the world of adults, which she is in no real hurry to join.

Having been kicked out of one high school for stabbing a jerk with a pencil, Lucia finds herself at Whistler, a public high school in a neighboring town. There she finds few real friends, but instead grows increasingly fixated on the possible existence of an Arson Club, whose objectives would seem uniquely well-suited to a girl (like Lucia) who carries her dead father’s Zippo lighter with her wherever she goes.

"Lucia’s intelligence and bravado, coupled with her relative powerlessness and susceptibility to adversity, make for a keenly sympathetic character."

Since her father’s death, Lucia’s mother has been confined to a mental institution. Lucia visits her faithfully in the hopes that she might find some glimmer of the mother she once knew, or (perhaps more importantly) that her mother might show some glimmer of recognizing Lucia for who she once was, too.

After her mother’s hospitalization and her father’s death, Lucia has been living in a garage apartment with her aunt, who has passed on a robust skepticism for rules and authority. The teachers at Whistler, although largely unwilling to tolerate Lucia’s disregard for regulations, nevertheless recognize her immense intellectual potential, and one in particular tries to help her gain access to a more promising future. But when tragedy strikes yet again, Lucia finds herself at a crossroads, one where fate and fire intersect.

HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY playfully experiments with form, including Lucia’s essays, creative writing exercises, and even her manifesto (which coincidentally is also the name of the novel) in its entirety, as well as a handful of diagrams and illustrations. Even though the book is somewhat fragmentary by design, Lucia’s strong and compelling voice nevertheless unifies it, combining vulnerability, hopefulness and a strong desire for love.

Lucia claims to be able to predict the future, but she also acknowledges (especially in her manifesto) the ephemeral nature of things, particularly institutions and sites of power: “Everything that is built will burn, or if it will not burn it may be wrecked. If it cannot be wrecked, it may be poisoned so that it stands as an example.” Lucia’s intelligence and bravado, coupled with her relative powerlessness and susceptibility to adversity, make for a keenly sympathetic character. Does Lucia find success? That’s a question that readers will be pondering long after the novel’s final pages.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 8, 2016

How to Set a Fire and Why
by Jesse Ball

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101911751
  • ISBN-13: 9781101911754