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BOOK REVIEW

Stumbling into family — and bursting into flames — in 'Nothing to See Here’

Dave Cutler for the Boston Globe

Odd families are something of a specialty for Kevin Wilson, who imagined children conscripted as participants in their parents’ performance art in “The Family Fang” and considered what it would be like to be collectively raised in a luxury commune in “Perfect Little World.” His new novel, “Nothing to See Here,” builds a family from equally odd materials, including two children who literally burst into flames when they’re upset. And the kids aren’t nearly as scary as their stepmother, ferociously ambitious Madison Roberts, whose main concern is keeping them under wraps until her husband, Jasper, is safely confirmed as secretary of state.

Wilson’s narrator, Lillian Breaker, has adored Madison since they were roommates at a ritzy Southern boarding school. Lillian was a scholarship student, Madison claimed to be “not like most rich girls,” and for one school year they were best friends. (There’s some heavy hinting that their friendship may have gone further than the usual intense bond of teenage girls, but Wilson leaves readers to decide.) Then Madison got caught with cocaine, and her father paid Lillian’s all-too-willing mother $10,000 to have Lillian take the blame. (Bad parenting is also something of a Wilson specialty.) Lillian was expelled; Madison went to college and married a senator. Yet for nearly 15 years they have maintained a correspondence based on their unspoken agreement never to mention the shameful deal that separated them. The life described in Madison’s letters was “as foreign to me as reports from the moon,” Lillian tells us. “I was working two cashier jobs [and] smoking weed in the attic of my mother’s house.”

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It’s 1995 and Lillian has just turned 28 when Madison offers her “an interesting job opportunity,” details unspecified. Still smitten after all these years, Lillian packs up and heads for the Roberts estate in Franklin, Tenn. That’s where she hears about 10-year-old twins Bessie and Roland, whose mother Jane has recently died. Madison was hired to manage Jasper’s senatorial re-election campaign after he left Jane for another woman; she did such a brilliant job that Jasper married her instead, and she’s been managing his life and career ever since. Bessie and Roland, temporarily lodged with their maternal grandparents, are simply another inconvenient loose end she needs to tidy up, and she makes ruthless use of Lillian’s feelings to engage her in this effort. “My whole life, maybe I was just biding time until Madison needed me again,” Lillian admits.

But Lillian is no passive victim. Her sardonic narration makes it clear she knows she’s being manipulated and is willing to go along because the “ton of money” Madison promises could finally give Lillian a shot at the life she’s always felt she deserved. Not Madison’s life, exactly — Jasper is more of a Ken doll than a human being, and their 3-year-old son Timothy is weirdly remote — but at least something beyond dead-end work and her mother’s attic. Besides, Lillian only has to deal with Bessie and Roland for the summer, Madison says, “until we can figure out a more permanent solution.”

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It’s a good set-up, fraught with unresolved emotions and promising undertones for future amplification, including Lillian’s wary interactions with the Roberts’ faintly sinister fixer, Carl. Lillian’s introduction to Bessie and Roland has plenty of drama as well: Bessie sinks her teeth into Lillian’s hand, then both children burst into flames. “It was beautiful, no lie,” comments Lillian, who feels a kinship with the angry, terrified twins: “They were me, unloved and [expletive] over, and I was going to make sure they got what they needed.”

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This insight is a trifle neat, and Lillian is impressively, perhaps improbably well-informed about her motivations. Despite the antic humor and bizarre details that give Wilson’s fiction a postmodern spin, he is at heart a traditional novelist who carefully connects plot point A to plot point B on his way to a carefully worked-out resolution. We see Lillian devising strategies to contain the twins’ flame-on tendencies and developing the backbone to protest Madison’s plans to stash them out of sight in boarding school. Her defiance prompts a response of astonishing cruelty from Madison, followed by a conversation between the two women that exposes the seething, sorrowful core of their relationship.

Lillian’s bond with the twins is never quite as interesting, though Wilson portrays it with a pleasing blend of tartness and tenderness, simply because Madison is by far the novel’s most interesting character. It’s clear that she’s biding her time as the power behind the scenes for terminally bland Jasper; she’s so competitive that she elbows Lillian in the eye to win a supposedly friendly game of pickup basketball. In many ways, she’s a monster, yet Madison backs up Lillian at the moments when it most counts. “I know you don’t believe it, but I have a conscience,” she says. Of course, her conscience only stirs when it serves her self-interest, and Wilson enlists Madison’s self-interest in Lillian’s fight to protect the twins with a fabulous plot twist in the midst of Jasper’s televised speech after being confirmed as secretary of state.

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“It wasn’t a happy ending,” Lillian tells us in the novel’s final pages. “It was just an ending.” True, but it’s a satisfying ending, steeped in a very human mix of ambivalence and optimism. Wilson’s ability to capture such tangled sentiments makes him a thoroughly engaging and appealing writer.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE

By Kevin Wilson

Ecco, 260 pp., $26.99

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.