Review: Like a House on Fire (Lauren McBrayer)

I am, much like Merit in Like a House on Fire, conflicted. On the one hand, there are things that irritated me about this book: the perfect/oblivious nature of the two people who are most important in Merit’s life, for one, and others that I’ll get into. On the other hand, it’s a bit of an outlier (in a good way) in the genre, with certainly a bit more gravitas about questions that are part of the genre, which I’ll also get into. I wound up giving it the higher rating based on the latter.

Spoilers ahead.

Merit is a married mom of two who has been out of the workforce for awhile. The goal of becoming a fulltime mom at home was to pursue her painting, hopefully to have gallery showing and then make art her career. That didn’t exactly pan out the way she wanted and hoped for, so it’s handy that she has an architecture degree and experience to fall back on. She lands a job at Jager+ Brandt, apparently right out of the gate (how handy!), were she meets Jane, her boss.

Jane is dazzling. Smart. Funny. Impeccably dressed. Quick-witted. All the superlatives. Perfect in every way. Jane hires Merit, and on her first day, takes Merit to a client meeting, where Jane is impressed with ideas Merit is adding to the mix.

They work long hours together, of course, and the women develop what is described as a deep friendship. This was the first stumbling block for me. It seems their friendship involves working long hours and copious amounts of alcohol after. In fact, I’m having a very difficult time recalling any time these two are together on the page outside of work or medical appointments where they are not drinking. I’m not a teetotaler, and I’m fine with some social drinking. But there are instances in this book where they just get completely shit-faced, and it seems as though Merit in particular wants to blot out the parts of her life that don’t involve Jane when she is with Jane somewhere.

Merit’s husband Cory, who seems like a nice enough, if a tad oblivious, guy, doesn’t get any marks of approval from Merit, who dings him – in her mind only – as forgetful, often lazy, and unwilling to share the burden of raising two very young children and helping take care of the household. One of the things that annoys me to no end in some fiction is a conflict that merely exists for a character to have a springboard to decisions they make when the conflict could have been solved or at least dampened a little if the characters just had a discussion about whatever it is. Maybe the outcome would be different, maybe not, but I’d think that Merit, married to Cory for 14 years, and who seemed to actually care about the guy, would have invested a tiny sliver of time in tamping down some of her resentment by just having a sit down with him.

It’s a slow, long burn of a book. If you come to this book looking for meet cute and sexytimes starting by the third chapter, you will be sorely disappointed. At least a year passes in book time (ding: the time passage is not altogether clear) before Merit hatches a plan to cheat on Cory with Jane. There’s no graphic sex in this book either, so if you were disappointed above, you’ll probably be disappointed by this as well. I’d say that Merit’s (infrequent) sex with Cory is more graphic, simply because there’s a handy appendage to mention (never fear, it’s only a mention).

Merit finds herself more and more attracted to Jane, and apparently Jane to Merit, although this is not well developed or clear. The two carry on an affair behind Cory’s back, through the turbulence of having two small children to raise – the duties for which seem to fall increasingly on Cory and a nanny while Merit figures out what she wants.

There’s a miscarriage, a fatal heart attack, and a ton of Jane and merit calling one another “bitch”, as if they are in a high school clique or have been watching far too much Real Housewives or Sex and the City than is healthy. A couple of times, sure, but thy do this far more often than you’d expect from a woman in her late 30s and another woman almost 60. Did I mention this is an age gap story as well? It is.

At the end, Merit decides to call it off with Jane, which I will say was written quite well, and is devastating. There is then an epilogue that is five years later, and while I was fine with the result, it annoyed me that we didn’t get any of the “how we got here” narrative after investing so heavily in everything that came before. It was almost as if the author ran out of gas or couldn’t figure out the “in between”, as I call it, to get the readers from point A to point B for the ending. It does work – of course it does, it’s a standard of the genre – but it felt rushed after everything before had been examined at length and in depth.

I wavered between three and four, but went with four stars out of five, as a nod to the genre and how this floats a little above most of the books of the same type.

Thanks to Penguin/Putnam and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

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