Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here begins as the story of two young women, Lillian and Madison, in their freshman year of high school at a fancy boarding school in the Tennessee mountains. Madison is the daughter of a wealthy family; Lillian is a scrappy local kid attending on scholarship. Despite their differences, they become close friends. The story then moves forward about fifteen years (the book is vague on time, both in terms of the relations of events in the book to each other and in when the overall story is situated in time, but the main (later) storyline seems to be somewhere in the early to mid 1990s). Lillian is still living in her mother’s house, working at a grocery store, and generally floundering. Madison has married a Senator and has a young son. Lillian receives a surprise request from Madison to come live with Madison and her family and serve as a nanny (or “governess”, Madison’s preferred term) for her husband’s two children from his previous marriage, who for some unexplained reason can spontaneously catch on fire when they become angry or upset. Lillian takes on the task somewhat reluctantly, but finds herself increasingly attached to the children over the course of the summer.
I loved this book so much! It was funny and weird and optimistic and sweet. I’m generally not one for fantastical elements or magical realism, but in this book the kids catching on fire just felt like another of those hard weird things in life that we all have to deal with, the things we keep from others because we feel ashamed or like other people won’t understand us. The relationships between Madison and Lillian and Lillian and her charges, Roland and Bessie, felt real and complex, and the developing affection Lillian has for the children was deeply moving. I chose this for my book club and I think maybe everyone else is going to hate it, but that’s fine.
I listened to this on audiobook narrated by Marin Ireland, who you might know from Sneaky Pete (or Broadway, if you are a more cultured person than I am). I am very picky about fake Southern accents. Many actors way overdo them, and do a generic “Southern” accent rather than sounding like they are from a particular place – a Texas accent and a Tennessee accent are not the same! (Looking at you, Kevin Costner in JFK.) But Ireland does a great job, both in having the characters sound like they are from where they are from, and in having the different characters all have different accents from one another that are consistent with their backgrounds. Her narration really added to my enjoyment of the book – I particularly loved the way she said the kids “catch on fahr”.
Recommended for fans of: All My Puny Sorrows, Normal People, that moment when you look around are decide that the situation you’re in is really messed up but also kind of funny.