Nothing to See Here
“This is a story that is so absorbing and told so briskly it can be devoured in one or two lengthy sittings. It is well worth clearing one’s schedule to do so.”
In the long history of fictional women caring for children other than their own, call them a nanny or call them a governess, many of these characters had it rough. Jane Eyre had a mysterious presence in the attic to worry about. Mary Poppins had the poignant knowledge that doing her job well meant making herself completely dispensable. On television, Fran Drescher had to contend with a scheming romantic rival and the grating sound of her own laughter.
But none of them had to worry about their charges catching on fire.
In Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson, author of the bestselling novel The Family Fang, has conjured a tale of a young woman and two children who must deal with the specter of spontaneous combustion.
The time is 1995. Lillian, the narrator, has just turned 28. She has received a letter from her high school friend Madison, asking Lillian to come see her because Madison has an interesting job opportunity to offer.
Lillian’s and Madison’s adult lives could not be more different: “She was married to an older man, a senator . . . I was working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, smoking weed in the attic of my mother’s house . . .”
Lillian and Madison met at a fancy girls’ school to which Lillian had received a scholarship: “I had spent my childhood gritting my teeth and smashing everything to bits in the name of excellence.”
They were roommates, Madison the daughter of a wealthy family, and Lillian the child of a single mother. They played on the basketball team together. The account of their time at school is alternately hopeful and tense; ultimately it is heartbreaking.
Lillian arrives at the bus station in Nashville, and a man named Carl picks her up. When they arrive at their ultimate destination, the estate does not disappoint: “The fucking driveway felt like it was a mile long, and it looked like it would lead you straight to the gates of heaven, that’s how perfectly maintained it was.”
When Lillian sees Madison for the first time after many years, she can’t manage to get out of the car: “I felt like if I moved one muscle, the whole thing would evaporate and I would wake up back on my futon, the A/C broken again. Carl finally had to haul me up, rag-dolling me as if I were a gift for Madison’s birthday, and then I fell into her arms.”
The situation in the household is a tricky one, and it is all happening just as Senator Jasper Roberts is being considered for Secretary of State. Becoming vice president and then president are goals on the horizon. Not the best time for twin stepchildren from Jasper’s troubled second marriage to appear.
Madison explains to Lillian that she would like her to care for the children. Not necessarily something at which Lillian is naturally or by virtue of experience inclined to excel, but she agrees to do it because Madison makes it quite clear how much she needs her old friend’s help. Once Lillian is on board, Madison has just a bit more information to share:
“‘They catch on fire,’ she finally said. ‘They can—rarely, of course—burst into flames.’”
Wilson then goes on to create an entire world in the guesthouse of the estate, where Lillian will live with Roland and Bessie for the summer, until a “permanent solution” to the problem can be figured out.
It is a world of sprinklers and smoke detectors all over the house, a world of fireproof clothing and gel used for fire stunts being ordered in large tubs. It is a world where Madison explains her relationship with her husband to Lillian: “He’s the perfect man for me because he’s very responsible and he treats me like an equal and he’s got his own interests and he lets me do whatever I want.”
Wilson’s words in creating this world, and the multiple levels of relationships within it, are succinct and vivid. They are also wonderfully funny. When Lillian sees all the toys in Madison’s son’s room, she observes: “. . . out came so many stuffed animals that I felt like I’d dropped acid.”
Upon meeting Senator Roberts, Lillian describes his hypnotic voice: “. . . the right amount of Southern accent. It wasn’t Foghorn Leghorn and it wasn’t a newscaster in Atlanta.”
Lillian drives with Carl to pick up Roland and Bessie from their maternal grandparents. Their mother, the senator’s second wife, is deceased. The trip and the entrance of the flammable children have an irresistible aura, part Disney fairytale, part horror show. Lillian’s introduction to the kids starts out well, and then goes wrong. Horribly wrong. Stephen King wrong. It’s Lillian’s first trial by fire.
If that last sentence is groan-worthy, it is equally impossible to resist.
Throughout, Lillian’s voice and observations are touching and delicious. As Lillian comes to realize how difficult the job she has signed up for is going to be, she offers an assessment of the trials of caring for these unusual, neglected, vulnerable children: “It was going to be like teaching a wild raccoon to wear a little suit and play the piano.”
Lillian is the kind of narrator readers want to guide them through a story, through lives, through relationships. She knows what she’s talking about. She knows how to share feelings and to share information: “They were me, unloved and fucked over, and I was going to make sure that they got what they needed.”
While Lillian stands out, even the secondary characters in Nothing to See Here are given full due. This adds so much to the novel’s complete ability to absorb the reader in the very high stakes of this strange situation, one that carries a constant, terrifyingly ominous undertone of what on earth will happen to these poor children.
So much is said in the pages of Nothing to See Here that applies to every family, be it all those happy families that are so much alike or all those unhappy families that are so different: “This was how you did it, how you raised children. You built them a house that was impervious to danger and then you gave them every single thing that they could ever want, no matter how impossible. You read to them at night. Why couldn’t people figure this out?”
As Nothing to See Here continues, it becomes more and more difficult to not skip ahead to the last pages to discover the fate of Lillian and Roland and Bessie. Resist that temptation. This is a story that is so absorbing and told so briskly it can be devoured in one or two lengthy sittings. It is well worth clearing one’s schedule to do so.