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How to Set Yourself on Fire

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  177 ratings  ·  47 reviews
"It’s not romantic," Torrey says. "It’s physics. For every letter there is an equal and opposite, you know…letter."

Sheila’s life is built of little thievings. Adrift in her mid-thirties, she sleeps in fragments, ditches her temp jobs, eavesdrops on her neighbor’s Skype calls, and keeps a stolen letter in her nightstand, penned by a UPS driver she barely knows. Her mother i
Paperback, 312 pages
Published May 8th 2018 by Dzanc Books
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3.84  · 
Rating details
 ·  177 ratings  ·  47 reviews

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Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
I think I might like this book
Jessica Sullivan
Feb 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This quirky novel about a listless thirty-something woman, the 12-year-old girl she befriends and a box of mysterious letters is such a hidden gem.

When Sheila’s grandmother Rosamond dies, she leaves behind a box of 300+ love letters from a man named Howard, an old neighbor of hers with whom she may or may not have had an affair.

Sheila’s life is at a standstill. She’s obsessed with a UPS worker who she’s been stalking for a few years now. She’s barely employed. She’s depressed. She’s weird as hel
Lolly K Dandeneau
Jul 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
via my blog:
'The world is a wall of heavy noise. I want to take a big breath exactly as much as I want to stop breathing.'

Sheila’s life isn’t full, she spends much of her time listening to Torrey, her neighbor Vinnie’s daughter, grow up through the walls of her apartment, working dead-end jobs with zero ambition, and dodging calls from her mother. Rosamund, her Grandmother, has just passed away and left behind a shoebox full of letters from one Harold C. Ca
Ryan Bradford
Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Such a deeply affecting novel. Evans has created something compelling and heartbreaking with her main character, Sheila—a woman who's unapologetically grotesque yet perennially wanting acceptance. A woman insecure with how she presents herself to the world, yet will only meet the world on her own terms. A dirtbag without an excuse. She's a frustrating, refreshing, brave character.

When Sheila befriends her neighbor's kid, Torrey, and the two set out to solve a mystery of sorts, it would be easy
May 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Full disclosure: I'm a big fan of Julia Dixon Evans, as an author and as a human being. Having read only her fabulous short stories previously, I thrilled at the opportunity to read this complete novel. Julia doesn't sugar coat her characters. They are genuine, especially in their most awkward traits. In HOW TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE, the protagonist, Sheila, is hardly a character I'd describe as likeable. But it is effortless how she lures the reader into her world, wanting more of her oddness, h ...more
David Agranoff
I have to admit something right off the bat. On paper, reading the back cover description of this book there is no way I would normally have chosen to read this book. I would have shaken off the idea as just not for me. The old saying about judging books by their cover can be extended to many aspects of books which are complete experiences. I read this book because frankly I like Julia. She is a San Diego writer and yeah I naturally root for San Diego writers. I have read a few of her stories an ...more
May 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. Equal parts tender and funny, relatable and lovely. I identified so much with the protagonist's difficult relationship with her mother. I loved the interweaving plotlines. Wonderful story beautifully written.
May 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Goodreads Synopsis:
"It’s not romantic," Torrey says. "It’s physics. For every letter there is an equal and opposite, you know…letter."

Sheila’s life is built of little thievings. Adrift in her mid-thirties, she sleeps in fragments, ditches her temp jobs, eavesdrops on her neighbor’s Skype calls, and keeps a stolen letter in her nightstand, penned by a UPS driver she barely knows. Her mother is stifling and her father is a bad memory. Her only friends are her mysterious, slovenly neighbor Vinnie a
Al Kratz
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I loved these characters. When I first hit the premise of the found letters, I wondered a bit how that would work for the novel, but several chapters later, found myself with Sheila and Torrey wanting to know what happens. I liked how non cliche their whole story is. The 12 year old is real. Sheila is awkward but real. How to set yourself on fire seems to mean how to awkwardly live in an awkward world. I find it interesting this started with a prompt that began with Vinnie. He’s an interesting s ...more
Jul 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I picked up “How to Set Yourself on Fire”
on a whim at the library and I’m glad that i did. It’s hard to put into words how I feel about this book, but it’s special in an unconventional way. Shelia is a mess and is at many points unlikeable. But that’s the point. The reader feels for Sheila how she feels about herself. The story centers on Shelia, her growing connection to Torrey, her 12 year old neighbor kid, and, of course, the letters. Harold’s letters are both beautiful and devastating. I fel
Jan Stinchcomb
May 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Quiet and exquisitely written, this debut tackles the biggest topics -- family secrets, inheritance, romance, narrative itself -- from the perspective of an unstable thirty-five year-old living in one of the cheapest dwellings in San Diego. Julia Dixon Evans offers us a group of characters trying to overcome the isolation of modern life by pursuing the stories that just might save them.
Jun 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was just such an awkward and odd love story and it completely was a love story. Mostly it was Horalds and everyone else was just a part of the story that was happening. There was a small group of characters throughout this book and they were all written just so perfectly human. They were flawed in almost every possible way and it was amazing. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from this book and it's been a while since I've read a book like this, but I honestly enjoyed every minute of it.
ariel pitman
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
Do you love those slow-burning, complex human dramas that take you on a trip so fully into the lives of their characters? The kind that show multifarious human beings trying - often failing - and trying again to do their best? Julia Dixon Evans spins a carefully crafted tale, and if it sounds like I'm not trying to give too much away, its because I'm not. This is a novel to dive into with few expectations because the reward is in the reading - approaching each sentence and paragraph as it's a sm ...more
Matt Lewis
May 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
When I first met Julia Dixon Evans, I was struck by her dedication and commitment to her craft...

Read the rest here:
Justin Eells
Aug 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in the mind of Sheila, the protagonist, a socially isolated woman in her mid-thirties who can't seem to hold down a job and is avoiding her mother because of a secret and a lie she told. The secret is a box of letters addressed to Sheila's recently deceased grandmother, Rosamond—letters she told her mother she had put in the coffin. The letters are from Rosamond's neighbor, Harold, and seem to reveal a romantic affair. Sheila spends her time dwelling on the ...more
Meredith Alling
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A beautiful, nuanced, tender novel told through razor-sharp wit and eagle-eyed characterization. Particularly affecting to this reader was the relationship between Sheila and her mother, but there is much to connect to here. Not an easy thing to accomplish, especially in a first book. I'm excited for whatever she does next.
Jerome Spencer
May 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I didn't realize something could be this beautiful.
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
Julia Dixon Evans' novel does a wonderful balancing act, striking both the comedic and the tragic chords of loneliness with expert precision. Her heart and soul lives within the pages of this book, mostly clearly on display in the main character, Shelia, a portrait of modern day anxiety, doubt, self depreciation and fear. Yet Shelia never manages to become a pity case. Instead, Shelia's discovery of a box of her late grandmother's love letters from an unknown suitor gives way to a journey of red ...more
Kevin Maloney
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
HOW TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE is a tender, fucked-up book about traumatized people trying to find beauty in a burning world. A million stars. Buy it.
Kaytee Bole (glitteringeyes418 on Instagram)
To see other reviews, go to

I received this book from Dzanc books in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.

This debut novel follows our protagonist Sheila in the loss of her grandmother, strained relationship with her mother and relationships with her next door neighbor Vinnie and his daughter Torrey.

Sheila visits her grandmother the day before she passes away. Her grandmother mentions a shoebox, but tells Sheila she will explain mo
Yulia Ivashkova
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
I rated the book four stars because it is beautifully written with characters that are very alive and vivid - even if I couldn't relate to any of them. Actually, I find the main character, Sheila, to be very disturbing and plain creepy. (view spoiler) ...more
Oct 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book even though I don't think it would be everyone's cup of tea. I blew through it on the subway going to and from work every day and if I hadn't left it AT work for a few days I would have finished it even quicker. It's definitely a quick read but one that is dark, a bit twisted, and super interesting if you're into what the human brain does to survive it's darkest moments. The twist(ish) at the end gutted me. I definitely recommend it if you're into deeply flawed (but ex ...more
Jenna Bastear
Sep 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this book at a local book festival a few weeks ago and had the pleasure of meeting the author in person before purchasing this book. She signed the front cover and wrote, "I hope you enjoy this strange story and its characters as much as I do." I had NO idea what I was getting myself into. This story made me both cringe and laugh out loud. The author was right, the characters in this story are strange and comforting in their own ways. It is such a raw story that I fell deeply investe ...more
Jan 09, 2019 rated it liked it

This book grew on me as I read. The main character, Sheila, is initially off-putting and...gross. As the book continues, she just seems painfully vulnerable and human. When she comes into possession of a box of letters that her grandmother had kept for decades, Sheila becomes obsessed with the letters and the backstory, but because of this obsession, she also expands her very isolated world and develops relationships with her neighbor and his young daughter. That's a terrible summary, but I'm
Emily Whitmore
Jul 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
A woman tries to navigate her messy life with the help of neighbors and letters that were left behind by her grandmother.

2018 is becoming the year of the apathetic female protagonist. Sadly, I don't think this book will get as much attention as The Pisces or My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but it should and could. It completely fits in with the trend of female characters that allow it all to hang out and don't really care about the fact that it is. They are and aren't books of self-improvement.
Aug 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2018
When I finished How to Set Yourself on Fire, I asked myself what I gleaned from it. The answer was nothing except perhaps a celebration of dysfunction. I must have missed something in that other reviewers here saw because I thought the entire story utterly pointless.

3 stars, low C- but only because there are a (very) few good insights.
Jul 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: read_2018, loss
A strange book about a lonely person. Sheila occasionally does temp jobs, but spends most of the book unemployed, hanging around at her dumpy little apartment.
It reminded me of Lonely by Emily White, which is a nonfiction book that is half autobiographical and half scientific study. Similar subject matter, in the end.
It was a good book, all things considered.
Apr 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. There's something about Sheila—the protagonist and narrator—that I just found riveting. Something in the way that she is so consistently self-destructive, the way that she's both self-aware and not. She strikes me as simultaneously just barely held together but also in a way very confident in who she is. Really interesting, I thought.
Sep 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages, and I read voraciously. It is so well written, so captivating and unique. I love the characters and their complicatedly authentic lives. And I love the story line and premise for the novel - it was very hard to put it down and not keep reading it all at once. An incredibly talented writer.
Oct 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Strange characters. Flawed human beings being flawed human beings. And yet totally loveable at the same time. I liked Sheila a lot despite her penchant for being a liar. It's understandable. There's some heavy intergenerational trauma going on. Not a book I would normally pick up (I think it came up in my Goodreads feed!) But I really enjoyed it. It sucked me in very quickly.
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