Reviews > Published on March 17th, 2016

Bookshots: 'Burning Down the House' by Jane Mendelsohn

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Burning Down the House

Who wrote it?

[Mendelsohn] is utterly shameless about defying everything we reasonably know to be true about the world in order to make her story work. Shameless and also brilliant.

Jane Mendelsohn, writer of the bestselling I Was Amelia Earhart, which she followed up with Innocence, now a movie. Burning Down the House is her fourth novel. More info at her website

Plot in a Box:

A super-rich American family schemes, shags and makes more money.

Invent a new title for this book:

The Rich are Still Different

Read this if you like(d):

If No One Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, or any other highly stylized fiction.

Meet the book’s lead(s):

The Zane family. I’d need a family tree with many branches to fully capture its modern complexity, but the main players are Steve the paterfamilias, Jonathan his son, and Poppy his orphaned niece.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

I badly want to say Donald Trump and his kinfolk, but Steven Zane clearly has a soul and we all know The Donald sold his years ago.

So how about the entire cast of Il Gattopardo (the Leopard) by Visconti? That has the right sense of decaying nobility about it.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

I spent some of my formative years with the super-rich. No thanks.

What was your favorite sentence?

This isn’t exactly my favorite, but it shows how brilliantly Mendelsohn can nail an image (‘like the contortions of prey’) then go on to ruin the effect by laboring the point.

Outside the car stores streamed past, in their windows mannequins animated in a series of random incomprehensible poses, like the contortions of prey, seemingly sophisticated arrangements of limbs, awkward bodies caught midmovement, unnatural, expressionless.

The Verdict:

Plot matters. If you want an object lesson in how much plot matters, read this book, because the plotting in this book is divinely, fabulously bonkers.

Here’s the setup: Steve Zane, a Trumpish real-estate tycoon, now onto his second marriage, is beginning the slide into old age and ill health. Poised to take over his affairs is Jonathan, his son from his first marriage. Steve has some scruples about how he conducts business, but has failed to pass these along to Zane Jr. Enter a Russian baddie called Wolf and in short order we have an arranged hit on two tourists ziplining in a Laotian resort, an ex-sex slave turned nanny being used as a private investigator by her boss and a very rich man trying to service a debt to said Russians by selling his cousin into a prostitution ring, a plot point that had me feverishly trying to work out exactly how much young white women were worth to snarling Russian baddies, because unless I’m missing something very rich men usually have access to things more valuable than their cousin. Like cars, or antiques, or y’know, cash.

But those are just for starters. Another thread depends on one of the Zane clan identifying the deposit of a family friend in a sperm bank and insisting on that deposit being used to create her baby, unbeknownst to the family friend and in flagrant contradiction of all the rules of sperm banks. The point of this jiggerypokery is to allow the family friend to fall in love with his own daughter, without knowing she’s his daughter and vice versa. Contortions like that make me feel safe in saying that if Mendelsohn had required a squadron of flying pigs to signwrite the pin-code to Steve Zane’s bank account in the sky above NYC, she would have found a way to write in those pigs because she is utterly shameless about defying everything we reasonably know to be true about the world in order to make her story work.

Shameless and also brilliant. Once you’ve absorbed Mendelsohn’s True-Detectiveish attitude to realism, you might also find yourself still loving the writing. Sure, there are moments of frustration (see my favourite sentence for an example) but there are also moments of genius. In one phrase she describes Bob Marley’s music ‘pouring like tequila into the river’. You can forgive a writer a great deal of mad plotting in return for words like that and Burning Down the House has plenty of sublimity amongst the madness: ‘Some pigeons had risen and were winging toward the clouds, moving like dark gray letters across the blank page of the white sky’.

Jane Mendelsohn, you are forgiven.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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