Kevin Wilson has carved a niche for himself writing endearing novels about quirky characters brought together in unconventional family systems. Cases in point: his earlier works The Family Fang and Perfect Little World. His recurrent themes revolve around the family we choose rather than the one we’re born into. His latest novel, Nothing to See Here, which is also his most assured, carries forward those same themes with a unique spin.
Lillian is in her late twenties and working dead-end cashier jobs while living in her mother’s attic. She gets an unexpected phone call from her high school best friend Madison with whom she has had a checkered past. Lillian had defied her poverty-filled background by getting herself a scholarship in a fancy boarding school for blue-blooded girls referred to as “a training ground for Amazons,” where she met the wealthy but kind Madison. Madison herself is the epitome of class and elegance but a closet oddball, which is what draws her to become friends with Lillian. However their time together is cut short after Madison is discovered in possession of illicit drugs. Lillian takes the fall for her, plummeting any hopes for a bright future to the ground. Since then she has been rotting away in her mother’s house while taking on any odd jobs that fall in her lap. So Madison’s phone call where she asks her to come to her home in Tennessee is a godsend for her. But there’s a catch.
Madison is now married to a rich senator who has been nominated for Secretary of State and is also mother to a toddler. The senator’s previous wife has just died and their two kids are now in his custody. These children have a genetic disease where they spontaneously combust into flames at will. Madison would like Lillian to do her a solid and become their temporary governess while they figure out what to do about their condition.
This over-the-top premise becomes entertaining and believable in the capable hands of Wilson who, if you have read his previous novels, is no stranger to absurd plots. He takes the most ridiculous storylines and grounds them in reality with an ample dose of matter-of-factness and sentimentality.
When Lillian arrives in Tennessee, she comes to terms with the complexity of what she signed up for. The combustible twins—Bessie and Roland Roberts—are unkempt, wary, and distrustful of everyone after their mother’s botched attempt to kill them while attempting suicide. Now Lillian has to quickly gain their trust while also making sure she prevents them from being a fire hazard to the Senator’s precious family while they lodge in a renovated guesthouse on his estate.
Initially her only motivation committing to this job is to please Madison (which she soon realizes is something she has been doing all her life) and to get a taste of affluent living. She can’t help but get attached to the children pretty soon, though. She identifies with their deprivation and how they stick out like a sore thumb. Being a pariah herself since school, Lillian has never really fit in anywhere and has always been viewed from afar with intrigue and caution. Now when she sees the same reaction meted out to the two fireball children whose bizarre condition renders them as outcasts, she can’t help but feel protective towards them.
Wilson has created a candid, handy narrator in Lillian who is an outsider and has plenty of barbed observations in her arsenal when it comes to Madison’s wealth. When Lillian first sees her room in the guesthouse it looks like “there should an exiled princess in the bed.” Madison’s son room has so many toys that momentarily Lillian wonders if she had dropped acid. The oddly humorous narrative is peppered with such random, laugh-out-loud gems that keeps the writing consistently engaging.
While Lillian’s indictment of Madison’s lifestyle is entertaining to read, Wilson is careful to depict Madison as more than just a Stepford Wife. As someone born with a silver spoon and looks to die for, Madison has had difficulty hiding her innate quirkiness, which is what made her friends with Lillian in the first place. Lillian describes Madison dilemma as, “…it scared people when beautiful people didn’t act a certain way, made themselves ugly.”
Descriptions are by turns elegantly precise and crisp. When Lillian watches Bessie burn for the first time, it is “like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.”
The most vulnerable Lillian finds herself is not when she has to put herself in danger to put out the flames that the children burst into. It is the moments of uncertainty when the children get insecure about their place in this overwhelming mansion in which they have been unceremoniously dumped into and in the life of their emotionally distant father. Lillian has to be their protector, friend and guardian. Lost and unsure about her own way in life, Lillian’s perplexity in these moments is palpable as she contemplates how “I could mitigate damage. I could not make people feel better.”
The story also touches upon the relationship dynamics between imperfect parents and children. Madison is careful as someone who had to hide her eccentricities to let her son be weird. She understands that he is not like other children but lets him be, without getting hyper-conscious about how people will view him as other than normal. Lillian has a dysfunctional, passive aggressive relationship with her opportunistic mother but at the end of the day, on some level, she emphasizes with her and the person that life has turned her into.
This novel also portrays one of the realest and most layered portraits of female friendship I have read in a while, without resorting to melodrama or cheap thrills. The power dynamic, attraction and petty nastiness that is part and parcel of friendship is touched upon tenderly.
As big-hearted as it is bizarre, Nothing to See Here is a charming story about people who do not fit into conventional boxes forging unlikely bonds and finding their place in the world. This novel will surely warm the cockles of your heart!
Nothing to See Here
By Kevin Wilson
October 29, 2019
A Karachi-based critic, bylines in Book Riot, Vol1Brooklyn, Brooklyn Mag, The Spectator, Irish Times and elsewhere. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org