Summary: Coming off of a bad relationship that ended with Allison accidently setting herself on fire, Allison starts college with physical and emotional scars. Making new friends is difficult when she’s been burned so badly in the past, but then Allison meets Shar who takes her under her wing and monopolizes her time. Shar’s actions suggest she shares the love Allison is feeling, until what appears to be love turns out to be jealousy, and a need for attention and adoration on Shar’s part. When Allison finds Shar has someone else to love, she reacts with fire, following old patterns. Fortunately other friends she made and neglected along the way are there to help her find her feet again.
Number of Pages: 295
Age Range: 16-18
Review: I saw Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me On Fire at a Chapters store in the fall of 2012, and I have been waiting to read it ever since. My university experience was not nearly so dramatic, but Tamaki set up Allison’s point-of-view with skill, helping me get into her perspective and fostering empathy for her actions.
I love the duality of Tamaki’s writing. Sometimes emotional scarring needs physical expression, and while I wasn’t happy that Allison accidentally set herself on fire, I loved how her burn scar remained a part of her that was always vulnerable. Allison was still vulnerable after her experiences with Anne, leaving her open to Shar’s attentions, but their friendship filled a need for both of them. Again, duality, because at first I thought it was just Shar who benefited from their relationship, until I realised Allison needed someone to need her and reassure her after she had been so wounded.
My favourite character was Carly, because she turns out to be Allison’s true friend and goes through her own journey of self-discovery. Her changing hairstyles and involvement in the film club were fun to read about. Plus I loved how she didn’t give up on Allison and made sure she was okay after things went south with Shar.
Ultimately, I feel Allison is going to learn from her experiences and move on to have the healthier, reciprocal relationships she deserves. Her identification with Joan of Arc at the end of the novel, and recognition that some things need to be tested with fire to prove their worth was literal and figurative, and very well done. I just wish that after Anne, Shar had been the real thing, instead of leading Allison on and giving her more reasons to doubt herself when it came to her sexual orientation.
There are some beautiful moments in Tamaki’s writing, and insights into the human condition that I enjoyed being privy to. As a book about Allison’s transition from high school to college, it is a timely read for older teen readers.
“Someone, jumping the gun slightly, yelled, ‘Fire!’
The thing that occurred to me later, as I sat in the ER surrounded by an evening’s worth of the broken, the bleeding, and the barfing, was how weird it is that people are apparently more likely to come running when someone yells ‘Fire’ than when someone yells ‘Help’ or ‘Rape.'” – Allison from (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki, page 5
“After weeks of being bandaged, disinfected on a regular basis, and relatively isolated, I’d completely forgotten how to walk in a crowd and finally resorted to frantically boxing my way forward.” – Allison from (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki, page 19
“I’m into girls, but I have some pretty strong reservations about this decision on my heart’s part. For me, ‘lesbianism,’ if you want to call it that (I hate that word), is like a kind of physical betrayal, like Tourette syndrome. It’s like, why, given my MANY experiences with the claws and fangs of girls, would I decide to put myself on the path of pursuing them for the rest of my life? It’s shocking to me that I could fall in love with a girl, let alone more than one girl. Although, you know, let’s not exclude the possibility that some boy will come along and sweep me off my feet. Boys, it seems, are just so cool and everyone wants one. Why not me?” – Allison from (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki, page 28
“Shar smiled. ‘I always think people with scars are the kind of people you want to hang out with, you know? Not so fucking perky all the time.'” – Shar from (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki, page 63
“‘People are strange,’ he sighed, picking a sliver of meat off his wing and popping it in his mouth. ‘We are . . . Pandora’s box. We are . . . Bermuda triangles. We are maps to countries that don’t exist.'” – Jonathon from (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki, page 282