“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”
Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.
Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:
I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.
That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.
But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:
I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.
So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.
Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.
He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.
Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.
Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:
We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.
So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:
I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.
Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:
And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.