How can you not love a book whose first person narrator opens the story by explaining why she stabbed a fellow high school student in the neck with a pencil? Lucia, the narrator and protagonist of How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball, is not your classical young adult going through growing pains. Her father is dead, her mother is in a mental institution, and she lives with her paternal aunt in a small garage outside a house. She’s acerbic, intelligent and hard to get along with, but she is a great character and you want to spend time with her, if only to find out what she’s going to do next.
Lucia explains why she stabbed the high school athlete at the beginning of the book: after being warned, he touched her late father’s Zippo lighter. Her one regret is that she didn’t stab him deeper. Her getting kicked out of her high school as a result doesn’t bother her at all, since she had no real attachment to that school, and even her aunt doesn’t take it too seriously (evidence early in the book of what kind of eccentric her Aunt Margaret is — Lucia refers to her as an anarchist).
Her experiences in her new school aren’t much better than in her old school (though she doesn’t feel the need to stab anyone in this school). While she makes a couple of friends, she still doesn’t really fit in anywhere. One thing that intrigues her is the reference to an “arson club,” though when she digs deeper, she discovers that it, too, isn’t exactly what she hoped.
The author drops one terrible thing after another on Lucia’s shoulders: it’s not enough that her father is dead and her mother is completely out of touch mentally, it’s not enough that she’s living in a place so small there’s only one bed and her aunt has to sleep sitting up in a chair so Lucia can have the bed, it’s not enough that she gets into trouble at school wherever she goes. She also has to face her aunt’s stroke and the health problems that follow from that. And when she does get accepted into a special school for brilliant young people, her behavior problems make it impossible for her to attend there. Though Lucia is incredibly resilient and handles all these blows with aplomb uncharacteristic of a kid her age, it does feel (a little) as if the author is stacking the deck against her a bit too much.
You don’t have to agree with Lucia’s philosophy as she sets it out in her pamphlet entitled “How to Set a Fire and Why” to appreciate her bravura approach to the world, and to root for her, even as she makes decisions that lead to questionable results. She’s an impressive creation, a young woman who’s true to herself even in bad circumstances, with a voice like a modern day Holden Caulfield and an energy that carries her readers along with her through anarchy and beyond.