Former trial attorney Bonnie Kistler’s debut novel is a domestic legal drama that explores tragedy in a blended family.
Divorce lawyer Leigh Huyett is happily married to Pete Conley, and their children - despite coming from different backgrounds - get along well. But when Leigh’s daughter is killed in a car accident with Pete’s son behind the wheel, their perfectly integrated family begins to crumble. Grief stricken and angry, Leigh throws herself into several complicated court cases while Pete grapples with the possibility of losing his only son, Kip, to the American court system.
House On Fire is first and foremost a study of family dynamics. Kistler explores how two broken families can merge together and find peace among the chaos of divorce and custody battles. Leigh and Pete have a beautiful life, and one that many remarried couples would aspire to. But the ease with which their relationship falls apart after the accident demonstrates how fragile relationships of that sort can be. Both Leigh and Pete are forced into impossible situations as the book intensifies. How can a parent choose between their child and their spouse?
House On Fire does have its downfalls. While the main storyline is gripping and reminiscent of a Jodi Picoult novel, it feels as though Kistler has overcrowded the book’s narrative. Side stories about Leigh’s various legal dramas overwhelm and distract from what the book is really about, and at times seem to have no purpose other than to enhance tension and intrigue. It can almost feel like jumping between two completely different books. This isn’t to say the passages about Leigh’s work aren’t interesting, because they are actually some of the more riveting parts of the book. Kistler personal legal expertise is palpable as she describes Leigh’s work, and it’s fascinating to learn about the American legal system. But the two parallel plots don’t mesh seamlessly, and keeping track of all of the characters can be confusing.
It’s also unclear if readers are supposed to sympathize with Kip or hate him. While at times he seems relatable as a teenager who made a mistake, other passages of House On Fire portray him in a darker way. As a main character and the person who the entire story hinges around, Kip’s behaviour was confusing and at times even misleading. He never really emerged as a fully developed character, and despite his central role in the plot he always seemed to linger on the fringes, only coming in to the spotlight in moments where it felt unnatural or unnecessary.
House On Fire is a bold debut, and Kistler clearly has a lot of potential. It’s a complex story and one that is sure to strike an emotional chord in readers, but it’s also somewhat disjointed and overwhelming. Fans of Jodi Picoult and William Landay should give this book a try, and should definitely keep an eye out for whatever Kistler does next.