Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

(You) Set Me on Fire

by Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki set the bar high when she wrote 2008’s Skim, a YA graphic novel (with art by her cousin, rising star Jillian ­Tamaki) that was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award and a Doug Wright Award for Best Book. Many will wonder if Tamaki’s first YA novel sans illustrations can live up to its impressive predecessor. It does, and more.

Tamaki navigates a world that begins where many YA books end: freshman year of university. After one failed romance with her sexually confused friend Anne, and two unfortunate accidents involving fire, 17-year-old Allison Lee is looking forward to a new start. But things quickly take a complex turn when she meets Shar. Volatile, eccentric, and irresistible, Shar soon eclipses everything else in Allison’s world, setting the stage for heartbreak and much worse.

Allison’s first-person narration makes this novel completely addictive. Readers will find something illuminating and darkly hilarious on nearly every page. From her musings on bisexuality (“Does it mean you have to sleep with a boy after you do it with a girl? What if all the boys in your town are stupid?”) to relationships (“I have this feeling that it’s easier to dump someone you know someone else has dumped. It’s like throwing out something you bought at a garage sale”), Allison deliciously articulates the hellishness of early adulthood. Like the works of superstar YA authors John Green and Gayle Forman, this book could easily spawn its own Tumblr quote site.

The novel’s presentation is as authentic as its prose. Tamaki uses extremely short paragraphs rarely exceeding five or six lines, and, like many teenagers, makes liberal use of the caps lock key. The result is a fast-paced, conversational narrative that reads more like a script than a novel, an excellent match for the escalating drama between Allison and Shar.

Tamaki’s latest effort is a pitch-perfect instruction manual for the first stages of adult life. It’s a fantastic book that sends readers a reassuring love letter, telling them that while they will get burned (figuratively if not physically), they will also survive.