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Music for TorchingReview - Music for Torching
by A. M. Homes
Harperperennial, 1999
Review by CP
May 31st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 22)

It's an uphill battle for a novel setting out to document the tensions and hypocrisy behind modern American suburban life, because it's a topic that's now so familiar to readers and movie-goers. We have seen American Beauty, we remember Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and some have been lucky enough to found the novels of Richard Ford, to name some of the best examples of the genre. It's no surprise that marriages are crumbling, people are having affairs, most are unhappy in their jobs, their children are going off the rails experimenting with sex, drugs, and crime, and behind the suburban facade of lawn-sprinklers and SUVs people feel that they have no control over the direction of their lives.

So it's a testament to the power of A. M. Homes' writing that she manages to bring life to this tired theme. Paul and Elaine are in their forties and live in the suburbs (maybe around Westchester) north of New York City: they are comfortably off, although not rich; he works in Manhattan, she looks after their two sons. He has affairs, she is utterly bored with her life. One Sunday evening they are starting to barbecue and in a moment of anger and frustration the knock over the grill and let the house burn while they take their sons to a restaurant for dinner. They just want the pain of their lives to go away, but they don't know how to sort out the mess, and this is an act of desperation. They feel a mixture of relief and disappointment when they return to find that the house has not burned down, and that they have to go about repairing it and pretending the blaze was an accident. They stay with neighbors while their house is being worked on, and this opens up to them the craziness of other people's lives. There's lots of weird sex, strange interactions, lying, and brutally honest exchanges, but they don't get any closer to knowing how to solve their problems.

Much of the prose is darkly comic. The pace is fast and the plot is on the verge of being unbelievable. The ending of the book takes it into a new realm of tragic seriousness which makes one feel guilty for finding any humor in what has gone before. Homes' writing carries emotional power because she is able to give insight into how Paul and Elaine think, and how they are aware of their situation even as they are trapped in it. Elaine repeatedly says, "I'm stuck." At one point they discuss the idea of seeing a therapist, but they can't imagine what anyone could say or do to help them. Homes' characters provoke a combination of sympathy and disgust.

Homes' bleak view isn't to do with the human condition, it's about the suburbs, yet she doesn't give any particular analysis of the causes of suburban angst. Her description is at the surface, even if it is emotionally rich and carefully observed. Though there is tremendous skill in the writing, Music for Torching leaves a sense of being an exercise in portraying desperation. I wish she gave more signs of hope or some indication of alternative ways of living the modern America.


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