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on February 13, 2001
A.M. Homes is a gifted writer who makes her readers squirm. In "The End of Alice," she paints a disturbingly twisted portrait of a pedophile. And now, in "Music for Torching," she gives us a savagely funny and sad portrait of the underbelly of suburban life. She has a gift of drawing the reader in, making us love, hate and identify with her characters. Her dialogue is knife sharp with multi-layered meanings, her situations seem real but yet out of proportion and the book reads like a reflection in a distorted fun house mirror.
Paul and Elaine, a married couple in Westchester, are bored and frustrated with their lives. On a whim, they set fire to their house and spend the night in a motel with their two young sons. Instead of this being the ultimate act of freedom for them, however, it is the beginning of an even tighter trap as the house is only damaged, not completely destroyed and they are thrust into a whirlwind of savagely funny and sad relationships with their own children, their neighbors and their respective lovers.
There's violence, graphic sex and moments of internal terror and confusion for Paul and Elaine as their life spins out of control. They are pathetically flawed and yet sympathetic human beings and reflect moods and emotions that we'd rather not admit might lurk under the surface. Ultimately, the book concludes with an senseless act of violence that reminds of some recent lurid headlines. All of this is woven together seamlessly with a story that moves so quickly that it's only after the book was finished and it continued to haunt me that I could look back and see the depth of Ms. Homes' understanding of the simmering volcanic cesspool of human emotions that lie festering under the surface.
This book is uncomfortable to read and not for everybody, but I thought it was excellent and intend to read some of this author's earlier work. Recommended.
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on May 9, 2001
What happens when you have one disillusioned couple with two young boys living in suburbia? What happens when said couple decides to ditch their barbecue and burn the house down? Literally. Then factor in similarly disillusioned and unhappy neighbors, and what happens when they all interact. The result is the startingly good book, "Music for Torching."
Homes writes a strong novel of the underbelly of American suburbia, and reveals the possible facets of the people you sit next to while commuting to work. The writing is especially strong because it does not glamourise the adult's decisions, nor does Homes present the characters as ones you should invest all your empathy in. The quirks invested in all the characters (from a wife's lesbian leanings, to the old man reading dirty magazines, to a young mistress who speaks only in questions) make them tangible and very engrossing, yet not bothersome to give your time to.
While the movie "American Beauty" was redeemed by its hopefulness of good intentions and stylized depiction of middle-class suburbia, "Music for Torching" does not provide an ending of 'everything is going to work out OK' or of the parents realizing the errors of their behavior only to put their life on the straight and narrow.
This is an engrossing portrait of the flipside of the vanilla portrayals of nice soccer moms, hardworking yet good-natured dads, and appropriately overachieving kids. While this is not an uplifting book, you may feel somewhat off-kilter when you realize these characters could be your neighbors.
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on August 20, 2003
I was looking forward to the American Beauty aspect I heard this book contained, having loved the sharp comedy and bitter pain of the movie. I also respect A.M. Homes and her other work (The End of Alice, The Safety of Objects). As the main characters, Elaine and Paul, the embodiment of suburbia, started off on a bad foot and got even worse, I became enraged with them. They're just shuffling through life. This book was completely depressing, but I couldn't stop myself from reading it. The characters were well-defined in their pathetic misdirection, but they kept miring me deeper and deeper into their ennui. The book actually started affecting me and making me feel unhappy and flat. I was glad to be done reading it and on to something more emotionally charged. The book made me feel, but I didn't like what I felt. Both Paul and Elaine are weak characters, and I felt sorry for their children, adrift with parents who are more childish than they. The end of the book reinforced my feelings-that when adults are lost, it's the children who suffer the results. At least people used to put up a farce for their kids. Now, they do well if they can find a way to forget about it for an hour or two, whatever that takes or costs.
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on October 14, 2002
Homes tells the story of Paul & Elaine, two bored and drifting suburbanites who float in a sea of self-delusion and the children, neighbors, paramours and contractors who occasionally bump into them.

Although there are a few amusing moments here and there (the insomniac perfectionist next door, Paul's sweaty self-abasement for the age-old pursuit of the proof he hasn't lost it), the story never really -goes- anywhere. Homes surely grew up in the suburbs; only a former member of a subclass can be so fascinated with the simple process of tilting back each and every split-level two-car rock looking for squirming grubs and dirty secrets.
Starts off with a great concept and sputters. Adds nothing new, no fresh insights. I was hoping for a cross-product of "American Beauty" and "Fight Club" and wound up with yet another retelling of "Peyton Place". As "The Breakfast Club" observed nearly 20 years ago, "Everyone's home life is unsatisfying." Not exactly stretching here.
Characters and events occur more or less at random, the conclusion is like the output of a deconstructionist writer's workshop where the attendees have been exhorted to "reject the bounds of plot!". Only a coincidental near-Columbine reference gave the book brief national notoriety.
All that said, I didn't completely hate it. This is my first A.M. Homes book, and there was enough intriguing stuff here to make me give "In A Country of Mothers" a try. I hope it will be better.
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on January 24, 2003
The Friday night party is over and the drunken host and hostess begin yet another spat. The host is secretly pleased because the date of one of their male friends has slipped him her phone number.
All this happens on the first two pages, and my immediate thought is oh, no, not another novel about a decaying, suburban marriage. Well, actually, it is another novel about a decaying, suburban marriage, but the good news, the saving grace of it all, is that it is quite hilarious.
The couple, Paul and Elaine, are totally out of spiritual fuel. Their exasperation with their lives is manifested when, on sudden impulse during a barbecue, they use lighter fluid to spread flames from the grill to the outside of their house. They make a quick departure, and return several hours later to find the house damaged but still standing. While repairs are made they stay with friends who seem to be from another planet. They farm out their two boys to other couples, and then, to fill in the dead spots in their lives, they engage in affairs. Elaine tries out lesbianism, while Paul spends time, much time, with two women acquaintances.
Every day Paul goes into work determined to have the most productive day imaginable, and every day he spends his office hours doing next to nothing. Well I shouldn't say he is completely inert. He does go out for long lunches and bed sessions with a woman known only as "The Date". He also gets tattooed in a nether region of his anatomy. Elaine lunches with a vocational counselor to see if some form of education would start her on a course of rejuvenation. But these flailing gestures do not bring peace and happiness to our weary couple.
The novel mocks not only the suburban couple, but also the suburban community of friends, and the workplace. It is a sad story that is loaded with black humor. The ending is just sad - and rather bizarre. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul and Elaine are riding on the edge of clinical depression. Does author Homes save them or do she push them over the edge?
Ms. Homes is an extremely talented writer who can take this rather overdone plot concept, and make it a delightful read. Hmmm. Why do I think a novel on marital disaster is delightful? Why do I chuckle at people who are desperate and depressed? Am I running on empty?
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on January 19, 2004
In A. M. Homes book MUSIC FOR TORCHING, we follow the lives of the married couple Elaine and Paul. An unhappy family living in suburbia. hey decide to push over their barbecue and it burns down their house. Their friends George and Pat invite them to live with them, while they renovate the house. Elaine puts her energy into restoring the house, all while struggling with her marriage with Paul and trying to raise her kids. Paul is having affairs with different women, and unhappy with Elaine. They do not know if they love each other anymore. There was quite a few twists and turns in the book, some were shocking, others were just strange, but I really got absolved into the book. The book was surprisingly good. The book doesn't have your typical happy ending, everything's gonna be alright type attitude. You don't even feel like you should be sorry for these characters, or that they are trying to make you respect their decisions. It is what it is, and that's it. Just honest truth. A pretty good read.
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on December 11, 2003
A. M. Homes, Music for Torching (Morrow, 1999)
To play devil's advocate, it would be hard for any author to reproduce the sheer unadulterated evil that reverberates through A. M. Homes' wonderful novel The End of Alice. I shouldn't expect it of anyone. Yet my second trip into the delightfully twisted world of Ms. Homes came with just such expectations. She subverted them by giving birth to something so completely unlike The End of Alice that halfway through this, I'd tossed the comparisons to the wind and was just having fun hanging on for the ride.
Paul and Elaine are your typical, everyday American middle-class suburban couple. Or so we think. Then, on impulse, they set fire to their house as part of a new beginning to their lives. From there, we get to meet the rest of the neighborhood and see their reactions to the supposed tragedy. The result is a savagely funny skewering of American suburban life that's too disgusting not to be accurate.
Perhaps the best way to describe this novel is "Peyton Place on crack." Everyone's sleeping with everyone else, the Stepford wives' porcelain skin is cracking under the stress, everyone's using entirely too many drugs, Paul's incompetence at work is richly rewarded, you get the idea. Everything is going along rollickingly, and we're laughing along, guilty and embarrassed that we find this stuff funny, and all in all it looked like your typical three-star novel; readable, predictable, but good enough to recommend. Then comes the last few pages, where Homes throws a curveball that fits in with the story in every way possible, but turns the tragicomedy on its head. The sucker punch is so skillful that it raises estimation for the entire book.
Sick, twisted, and not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, but those who found themselves in love with The End of Alice or The Safety of Objects (where Paul and Elaine first show up; that story is referred to here a number of times) are going to find much to adore in Music for Torching. ****
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on August 17, 2001
'Music for Torching' certainly relies more on shock value than literary flair to make it appealing. This book is definitely shocking. You will never believe all the tragedies and tribulations that occur in the Weiss household within the space of one week; burning houses, affairs that the wife pretends to not know of, housewives with studded strap-ons, tattoo rendezvous' and spacemen, the plot and characters are incredulously random and fallaciously confusing.
Every member of the Weiss family feels gravely bereft in some fashion, and they take it out on each other. This book represents the epitome of unhappy housewives and belies of families trying to live up to a 'Brady Bunch' mentality. It could make up a wonderful, heartwarming, realistic story, but it doesn't. Instead it is over stimulating and overly dramatic, the characters are disengaged and the reader never really cares about any of them. There is so much going on, it stressful to read this novel, there are so many questions left un-answered, its frustrating.
Perhaps Homes was thinking the big screen when writing "Music for Torching", with all of the absurdities, it would certainly make an exceptional episode of Melrose Place, but if that's the case she should have submitted her story to a producer- not a publisher.
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on March 23, 2001
Take a little "Tess of the D'urbervilles." Mix in a little Cohen Brothers. Add just a dash of Hemingway. Place it all in a pot on the stove of modern suburban America, and you have this little incendiary device called "Music for Torching." Reading this book made me miserable. Yet, I kept reading. Reading it made me sad. Yet, I kept reading. A couple of times, I likened it to watching "Faces of Death" or some unspeakably disgusting pornographic film involving animals, disgusted yet unable to turn away. Yet, when I encountered both of those other options in real life, I DID turn away.
But I couldn't turn away from this book. Because A.M. Homes is more intelligent than I.
It would be nice for me to think Ms. Homes was tortured as a young girl. That she was one of those Goth types who listened to Bauhaus and Siouxie and the Banshees while dropping acid and engaging in pseudo-wiccan rituals to punish the jocks and preps. I hope she was one of those. I hope she's not, in actuality, anything remotely like me.
I enjoyed "American Beauty." There were flashes of BEAUTY in that ode to apathy. There are no such flashes in this book. It's utterly, hopelessly miserable.
But for it to be THAT miserable and for me to FINISH it -- I don't finish books unless they're good, as a way of punishing the authors whose books aren't worth finding out what happened -- speaks volumes for Ms. Homes' skill. Excuse me now why I go sleep with my neighbor's wife and drink myself silly.
[um... that was a joke. The kind of "joke" that is everywhere in this book.]
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on July 27, 2001
Music for Torching, A.M. Homes's forth novel, should expand her readership considerably. More accessible and much less obviously controversial than her preceding novel, "The End of Alice", "Music for Torching" documents the dropping of masks of sanity which ordinary people wear in public life.
Her protagonists, a middle-class married couple, reel through the pages desperately searching for a means of self-expression amidst the rigid banalities of suburban morality and material trappings.
After burning down their own home in a moment of nihilism, vandalism accompanied by paralysis and stunned disbelief, Elaine and Paul have passed through the looking glass that the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to call "The Real". The most banal elements of daily life are varnished with a coat of confusion and incomprehension, yet nowhere does Homes throw in the towel and descend into flat-out surrealism. The tightrope walk between levels of reality is one which the author fairly dances across.
A few hilariously improbable affairs ensue, but the improbability of the occassional plot device still carries with it an air of realism. We've all heard stories so bizarre they have the ring of truth to them: so does Homes's novel, only it happens to be, in fact, fiction.
The protogonists' lives unfold with the apparent randonmess of our own daily experiences, and Homes is nothing if not topical in the both hedonistic and masochistic choices she has her lost characters make. Baby boomers to the core, Elaine and Paul, though sympathetic, are selfish and impulsive, going through mid-life crisises of a sort simultaneously but very much alone, even in respect to one another. Homes's presentation of Elaine and Paul is deadpan, neither judgemental nor forgiving.
Homes's voice, as was obvious from her collection of short stories (one of which inspired this very novel) "The Safety of Objects" onward, is extremely, disconcertingly powerful and unique. There are trace elements of Updike here, but Homes is charting territory entirely new and her own. For all the comedy which emerges, her characters find that life is terrifyingly resistant to control.
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