Thursday, April 10, 2014

Burn for Burn, Fire with Fire

There are many sayings about revenge, but the one that kept coming to my mind as I read these books was this one: Revenge is a dish best served cold.  Ironic that that saying is the one that best applies to book that have to do with fire: Burn for Burn and Fire with Fire.

To begin with, there are three teenage girls: Mary, Kat, and Lillia.  It is their senior year in high school, a year that is supposed to be full of fun, starry-eyed excitement, and big plans.  Those plans, for most seniors, include college, graduation, and one last year of freedom.  But for Mary, Kat, and Lillia, those plans are focused on revenge for past wrongs.

Lillia is one of the in-crowd.  She and her best friend Rennie run the cheer leading squad.  Lillia's little sister Nadia is on the squad, too, and she basks in her older sister's popularity.  Lillia doesn't have a boyfriend, but she has a close guy friend, Alex Lind, who she secretly wishes could be a little bit more.  Lillia and Nadia are rich - the kind of wealthy where everything comes easily, where they don't think twice about having the kinds of things others covet.  So what could Lillia possibly need revenge for?

Kat is a tough girl.  Unlike Lillia, not much comes easily to Kat.  Instead she has always been given scraps of attention, food, whatever is around.  She was raised by her father, and has an older brother who seems to be going nowhere.  She, too, has a connection with Alex Lind - they have spent the summer hanging out together, and suddenly their relationship has changed.  But that is no reason for revenge.  Her reason has to do with Rennie, Lillia's best friend.

And lastly, there's Mary.  Mary has just returned to Jar Island, where they all go to school, to live with her aunt.  As Kat and Lillia get to know her, she reveals her own desire for revenge and what has caused it.  Kat's story is full of friends who are not really her friends, cruelty, bullying and a final event that makes you want to cover your eyes.  This is how the fire starts smoldering.

When Kat, Mary and Lillia first become friends, Kat seems to be the ringleader.  As I mentioned before, she's a little bit tough, tougher than the other girls by far.  So it's Kat who talks the other two girls into coming together to help each other get revenge.  She talks Mary into it by emphasizing their friendship: "'I don't have to know you to see that you're a total mess over whatever happened, like, years ago.  And hey, it wouldn't be a free ride.  You'd have to get your hands dirty too.  But we'd be in it together.  The three of us.'" (p. 129).  That's all it takes.  Kat, Lillia and Mary agree to participate in the revenge plot, with the idea that they will take down one of their grudges at a time.

There were many times in the first 250 pages of Burn for Burn where I felt uncomfortable with the central idea of this trilogy.  Revenge felt a bit too mean-spirited for me, and the ideas the girls came up with seemed too extreme for what had happened to some of them.  And the girls are fairly single-minded in their pursuit of revenge.  It doesn't matter if people's reputations get ruined, their futures in jeopardy, or if they get physically hurt.  Once that fire starts burning, it is difficult to put out.

The events of both books are like a rolling stone - they just keep on gathering speed.  And I sort of wondered when one of the girls would start to speak up and put a halt to this process.  But the three girls have very different personalities, and they aren't exactly conducive to stopping revenge.  Those personalities combine into a perfect storm.  Mary is mild, quiet, and deeply hurt by the events that unfolded.  Although those events happened years ago, she cannot let them go, and they have brought her back to the island.  Lillia is more of a people-pleaser, and does not stand up for what she thinks.  For example, although most people believe she and Rennie are best friends, Lillia can't stand Rennie.  But it's easier to just go along with the flow, to let others believe what they want, to not rock the boat.  And Kat continues on with the revenge because she can see how the others' revenge plans can benefit her own.  It's sneaky, but also strong-willed.

As I said, I couldn't imagine how these girls could really feel so strongly about getting revenge.  Lillia's original revenge, in particular, feels a little petty.  Then, on Homecoming night, things change.  And while the revenge idea still made me feel a little discomfited, I was totally caught up in what happens to all three girls.  Secrets begin to be revealed, and they are shocking.  It is truly astonishing the lengths to which these girls will go for revenge.  I can't say anything more about these books without spoiling something, but it is can't-stop reading.

I am always interested in authors collaborating in the way Han and Vivian do.  According to the blurb on the back of Fire with Fire, the authors "met in graduate school in New York City and have been inseparable ever since."  When I read books that are co-written, I like to play "Spot the Seam".  The authors often split writing duties in some obvious way - one author writing in one voice, the other creating a different character.  But there are three main characters here (each with their own chapters in both books), and while I've read both authors' work previously, I couldn't decipher who wrote which character.  And that just made me keep reading!  I'm not sure if they created a hybrid tone for these books, but it was seamless and fascinating!

Another thing that I think works very well in these books is the genre-busting.  While these books are primarily realistic, school fiction, there is a...hint of something else.  Realistic and school fiction are my two favorite genres of teen fiction, and these books work particularly well.  But the introduction of another genre also is believable and clever, and totally surprising.  I was shocked by what happened and how that changed my reading of the novels.  Frankly, the switch took this series from one I would have enjoyed to one I wanted to blog about.

And, finally, perhaps the thing that I loved most - the island setting.  I know I've mentioned before that I spent two years living on Nantucket.  I still have a real fondness for islands, and am very familiar with how hard it is to change people's reputations in a small town.  These girls, particularly Kat and Lillia, have their reputations set before they are even old enough to care.  On the island, life is an open door (sorry!) for Lillia, and that door is locked tight against Kat, no matter what she does.  It is interesting to see how that affects each of them.

I sped through the second book, Fire with Fire, in record time, and will be waiting with bated breath for the third, Ashes to Ashes, which will come out next fall.  I can't wait to see how revenge plays out for these girls.

Burn for Burn.  Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012.
Fire with Fire.  Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013.

both books sent by the publisher for review