Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help.
Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way. Lillian is convinced Madison is pulling her leg, but it’s the truth.
Thinking of her dead-end life at home, the life that has consistently disappointed her, Lillian figures she has nothing to lose. Over the course of one humid, demanding summer, Lillian and the twins learn to trust each other—and stay cool—while also staying out of the way of Madison’s buttoned-up politician husband. Surprised by her own ingenuity yet unused to the intense feelings of protectiveness she feels for them, Lillian ultimately begins to accept that she needs these strange children as much as they need her—urgently and fiercely. Couldn’t this be the start of the amazing life she’d always hoped for?
I haven’t read much this fall. It’s been a combo of not waiting on library holds and just a lot else going on. But I did manage to pick this up in September and really enjoyed it.
The premise about the children randomly bursting into flames is weird. But this is not a fantasy. It’s closer to contemporary magical realism than anything else, and I was afraid I’d find it cheesy. But somehow Wilson managed to make the kids’ condition feel realistic while still acknowledging how abnormal it was. It was also fun that it was set in Tennessee (and hilarious that Madison’s husband, a US senator, was a Democrat).
Through the middle of the book, this was a little slow. It felt like Lillian and the kids spent half the summer doing nothing. But it did give a lot of space to get to know Lillian and the backstory between her and Madison. The characters were well-written if not astounding, and it was really sweet to see Lillian learn about creating her own family and purpose.
Class inequality was a large theme in this story, too, with Madison and her husband coming from old money and Lillian coming from a barely-working-class family. There was a lot the friends had to grapple with in this regard, but it wasn’t heavy-handed. It would be interesting to discuss that aspect of the book with a group, because ultimately that underlying theme never gets resolved, much like it wouldn’t in life. I think that’s one of the things that made this book feel real.
With everything that Lillian learned about family, though, I felt like she still never grasped how horribly Madison treated her throughout her whole life. She learned a lot more details about Madison’s side of the high school fiasco that caused Lillian to lose her spot at a prestigious school, and it was just kind of glossed over. They ended the novel still friends, when I felt like they shouldn’t have. But that was my only main gripe with the book. This was a sweet, light, quick read that isn’t your usual grown-woman domestic drama.
Cover and description from Goodreads.