In this hard-hitting, dark exploration of toxic relationships Tamaki nails the experience of first year university- the good and the bad- with teens gone a little crazy on freedom and alcohol.
Allison has good parents, great potential, but a dark past. When she enters her first year at university she is bewildered, unimpressed, and disconnected from the hyper-social, highly intoxicated atmosphere of residence. But then she meets Shar. Beautiful, irrepressible, and ultimately dangerous, Shar is everything Allison has ever wanted. But as the year spirals out of control and Shar’s charms start to wear off, Allison wonders if it will ever be possible to gain control of her life.
Two things really struck me about this book. First, what a talent we have in Mariko Tamaki. Having read the graphic novel Skim, created with her cousin Jillian Tamaki, I knew I would be in good hands, but her first person narrative blew me away. Allison is an angry, wounded person and an excellent observer. I didn’t always agree with her, but I believed her, with one exception. I never really bought why Allison was drawn to Shar. I understand the allure of the aloof, beautiful, enigmatic friend, but not enough time was spent developing their relationship or describing Shar’s intoxicating qualities for me to 100% believe that Allison would be as devoted to her as she was.
This brings me to the other thing I loved about this book, which was the theme of toxic friendships. Every girl I know has had one female friend in their life who was toxic. Maybe she was the queen bee of your group of friends, or someone you knew forever so you tolerated her behaviour because of your shared history. Whatever the reason these friends are usually fun, exciting and make you feel special and indestructible one moment and then are completely dismissive or cruel the next. She is the kind of friend who helps you get ready for a date and then flirts with the object of your affection in front of you to see if ‘he’s good enough for you.’ While Allison and Shar’s relationship has romantic overtones (at least on one side), I would argue their relationship is more an example of toxic girl friendships than a romantic relationship gone awry.
I’m so glad Tamaki went there- not a lot of YA writers do, or at least not with such authenticity and grit. I sometimes wonder if YA readers can relate to the endless romantic relationships they are fed through contemporary YA fiction, but I know for a fact that a lot of teen readers could benefit from reading about toxic friendships. Sometimes you need to read about something before you can identify it in your own life. (You) Set Me On Fire could go a long way in enlightening some girls on the subject of bad girl friendships.
This was an uncomfortable but addictive read. I found myself cringing inwardly at many moments and wanting to tell the protagonist that she would get through the upheaval of first year. Reading this book brought back the darker moments of my own first year at University. Though my experience was rather tame and overall very positive, there were days and weeks I don’t care to recall, and is too Tamaki’s credit that she made me re-live them through Allison’s visceral narrative.The overall metaphor of being burned (romantically and literally) felt a bit forced, and the story was strong enough that it didn’t require an overarching metaphor to pull it all together.
(You) Set Me on Fire is available now from Razorbill Canada