________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 9. . . .November 1, 2013


(You) Set Me on Fire.

Mariko Tamaki.
Toronto, ON: Razorbill/Penguin, 2012.
295 pp., trade pbk., $16.00.
ISBN 978-0-14-318093-7.

Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**½ /4



I’m saying that I realized, with Jennifer Taylor’s ID tucked in my back pocket, that the people I was walking with knew almost nothing about me: we knew each other’s names, and by the time we left Dylan Hall I had most of my floormates’ cell numbers in my phone and they had mine (for emergencies). On top of that my floormates knew:

-- that I was seventeen years old
-- that I had graduated from a private girls’ school
-- that I didn’t have a boyfriend
-- and that I was an arts major.

Beyond that, Hope knew I was a fan of both techno music and old-school rock and roll (and I knew Hope liked metal, in part because she had a “METAL” tattoo in big gooey letters on her bicep). Everyone knew I’d burned myself at one point in the summer, although no one knew how or why. I just said I`d been in an accident.

But that`s it.

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I`d told them about myself. Nothing more. They`d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster.


Allison Lee heads for college and appears ready for change. She has both literal and figurative scars from being in love and from being on fire. She moves quite a distance from home and ends up in Dylan Hall, surrounded by other female freshmen who are also on the verge of a new and exciting lifestyle. Allison is not particularly outgoing, and so she makes no real effort to attract new friends until Shar comes along. Allison ‘Sonny’ and Shar become inseparable, and this friendship shapes Allison’s first year experience and, potentially, her entire life.

     Mariko Tamaki gives her readers an interesting array of characters in a young adult novel set at a college rather than the usual high school setting. Thus, readers meet characters who are older, if not necessarily more mature, than those in much young adult fiction. Allison seems lonely and angry and is often cynical and sarcastic about the other women on her floor and college life in general. Readers understand that she needs support and encouragement and watch as she looks for help in all the wrong places.

     As soon as Allison meets Shar, she is attracted to this strong and willful young woman. Shar is manipulative and overpowering, and Allison seems to fall under the spell of this ’bad girl’. The reason for this attraction is not entirely clear, and, for this reader, is a problem with the novel. Allison appears to understand that Shar is not a good influence and yet seems too weak to choose more appropriate friends, despite overtures from other floormates. Shar leads Allison to believe they have a special, even potentially sexual, relationship and then does not hesitate to completely drop her later on in the book. This is a classic example of a shallow and toxic friendship, and it is difficult to understand Allison's rationale for allowing it to continue.

     Allison also manages a tentative friendship with classmate Jonathon, but during much of the novel she simply uses him as someone who will supply her with notes and other means of getting through her courses. While apparently not understanding that Shar is manipulating her, Allison has no qualms about manipulating someone else for her own ends.

     The college setting of dormitories and classrooms becomes somewhat clichéd as the characters in the novel revel in new-found freedom while seeming unable to really handle their new situation. The norm seems to be skipping classes, excessive drinking and partying, sex whenever and with whomever it comes along. The bullying and friction experienced in high school by Allison and others doesn’t disappear but simply morphs into bullying of a different variety. Only the music students appear to take school seriously. A new stereotype?

     A main symbol in the book is that of fire. Allison manages to set herself on fire twice before the book opens and is involved in a fire which is set in the room of a male student. There are references to the phoenix myth and to Joan of Arc. Perhaps the intent is to imply that Allison can be ‘forged’ into a stronger, more resilient young woman. There is some evidence of this at the end of the novel, but it is by no means a certainty.

     The action of the novel centres around the Allison-Shar friendship and whether it will grow and adapt or simply wither and die. Unfortunately, neither character is particularly likeable, and so, for this reader, it didn’t really make a great deal of difference. One continues to read the novel in rather the same way that drivers gawk at an accident scene, wondering just how and when the wreck will occur and having the same sort of morbid fascination with the resulting chaos. Allison is a freshman in a new situation who has the great potential to grow and to re-invent herself; unfortunately, Tamaki does not convince her readers that Allison is up to the challenge.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and secondary school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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