Lillian Breaker and Madison Roberts have been friends since they were roommates at boarding school. A decade later, in 1995, Lillian is living a dead-end life with her emotionally unavailable mother in a tiny Tennessee town after being unfairly tossed out of the boarding school. Ask Madison about that.
Nevertheless, she and Lillian have remained friends in the decade that has passed, so when Madison sends her money for a bus ticket and the promise of a job, Lillian accepts without thinking, heading for the 19th century mansion where Madison lives with her husband, Senator Jasper Roberts, and their ethereal preschool son, Timothy. Which is where she finds out that the senator has two children from his previous marriage, twins whose mother recently died, and they’re returning to live with their father, with Lillian as their caretaker. “I thought maybe more like a governess, like more old-fashioned,” explains Madison. And the twins, Bessie and Roland, have one little quirk, something that makes them a bit more challenging than the average set of twins …
“They catch on fire,” she finally said. “They can — rarely, of course — burst into flames.”
Although she initially doubts her ability to deal with the twins, Lillian is able not only to take care of them, but provide what she never had: a loving home and a sense of security. She begins to recognize the signs of when the children will “catch” and calms outbursts with a reassuring “nothing to see here!” The kids begin confiding in her and respond with affection she’s never experienced.
And as Senator Roberts moves into higher political office, Lillian marvels at Bessie and Roland’s insights on their fractured family situation, which makes what the three of them witness on C-SPAN all the more stunning — and satisfying.
Marin Ireland is the perfect narrator for Kevin Wilson’s dry, witty prose. She changes character voices without listeners consciously noticing, carrying the complex story as lightly as if it were a feather. She’s the perfect voice for Lillian, taking her from a depressed weed-smoking cashier to the loving and — motherly, in the best sense — caretaker of two unusual children.
Kevin Wilson is the twenty-first century’s finest chronicler of the absurd — in the era of COVID-19, spontaneously combusting children seem like a relatively minor problem. Wilson’s magical words allow readers to visualize the children bursting into flames and Lillian calmly removing her borrowed muumuu to pat them down … nothing to see here … while the other adults stare in horror. There’s no better fictional observer of the preposterous.