Watching a child pitch a full-blown tantrum can be a spectacular thing to behold. The flailing limbs and crumpled face, the copious tears and ear-piercing howls.
But imagine if instead of throwing a tantrum, a child expressed extreme agitation by bursting into flames. And what if that child had a twin, and they spontaneously combusted in tandem? That is the premise of Tennessee author Kevin Wilson’s engrossing, darkly funny new novel, “Nothing to See Here.”
If Anne Tyler ( “The Accidental Tourist”) and Chuck Palahniuk ( “Fight Club”) had a baby, the result might be Kevin Wilson, who first garnered critical acclaim with his 2011 literary debut, “The Family Fang,” a New York Times bestseller that was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman.
Like Palahniuk, Wilson’s characters are flawed, edgy, marginalized and borderline misanthropic. But like Tyler, they ultimately redeem themselves by patching together alliances with other assorted misfits to create surrogate families.
In “Nothing to See Here,” Lillian is a 28-year-old loner who works a minimum wage job and spends her spare time smoking pot in her mother’s attic. But there was a time when she had dreams of escaping her dead-end existence dependent upon a resentful mother and her mother’s rotating cast of loser boyfriends.
In her youth, Lillian earned a scholarship to Iron Mountain Girls’ Preparatory School. But she was only there long enough to see what the future might have held for her before she was expelled, betrayed by those closest to her and forced to take the fall for someone else’s misdeed. The only good thing to come out of the experience was Lillian’s unlikely friendship with Madison, her rich and beautiful roommate.
Madison is now married to state Sen. Jasper Roberts, and they have a son “whom she dressed in nautical suits and who looked like an expensive teddy bear that had turned human.” When Madison sends Lillian a request for help, Lillian jumps at the opportunity to change her circumstances and to see Madison again after all these years.
Jasper’s ex-wife has died and the children from their former marriage, 10-year-old twins Bessie and Roland, are being sent to live with the Roberts in Franklin, Tennessee. Lillian is hired as their full-time caretaker. It’s not until Lillian arrives that she learns she and the twins will not be living with the family in their mansion, but in the cottage out back, and that the twins were born with a genetic condition that causes them to burst into flames when they become upset. That last detail is to be guarded with secrecy so it doesn’t complicate Jasper’s political aspirations.
Lillian is mesmerized the first time she witnesses the children combust. “There were delicate waves of yellow flame moving up and down Bessie’s little arms. And then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body a kind of firework.”
Just like parents whose children throw tantrums in public, Lillian goes into crisis mode when Bessie and Roland light up, doing everything she can to keep them calm. A peculiarity of the condition is that the fire doesn’t burn the children or even hurt them, but their clothing catches fire and they risk torching their surroundings.
The irony of the situation doesn’t escape Lillian. She never liked children or wanted any of her own, and yet here she is, spending her days trying to keep Bessie and Roland safe and entertained just so she can be close to Madison, who is rarely around. But when Madison and Jasper increasingly treat the twins like an unwanted burden that doesn’t fit in to their carefully curated lives, Lillian begins to identify with the twins, particularly Bessie, whose defiance burns as brightly as her flames.
“I remembered that feeling, driving down to the valley, no longer welcome at Iron Mountain. It had felt like my life was over. And it kind of was. I wouldn’t let that happen to these kids. They were wild, like me. They deserved better, like me.”
In the process of protecting the twins — from their own self-destructive tendencies, as well as whatever nefarious plans the Roberts may be cooking up for them– Lillian starts to develop feelings for them that confound her. After all, she confesses, “I was no real judge of love, having never experienced it, or even witnessed it a single time in my life.”
Tensions begin to mount when Lillian tries to incorporate the twins into the Roberts’ lives, just as Jasper’s confirmation as secretary of state starts to ramp up. When a surprise twist throws everything into chaos, some painful realities are revealed and everyone goes into damage control in unexpected ways.
It’s noteworthy that “Nothing to See Here” is set in 1995, before the dawn of social media, when everything we did wasn’t captured on cameras and shared around the world in real time. The concept of keeping secrets still seemed possible back then. Were this story set today, the twins probably would have been trotted out as medical freaks in YouTube videos and ridiculed with memes on Facebook. But in 1995, with Lillian as their caretaker, they get to live in their own little bubble, where they are not only protected from the threat of fire, but they are safe to be their weird, wild selves. And in Wilson’s world, that is just as valuable, if not more so, than wealth, beauty and power.