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Music for Torching Hardcover – April 21, 1999

101 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

As Quentin Crisp used to say, "Don't keep up with the Joneses! Drag them down to your level!" This could be the motto of the suburbanites in A.M. Homes's fourth novel, Music for Torching. Homes has a subtle eye and ear for suburban reality, but beware: she is no mere satirist of what James Joyce called the "muddle crass." Behind each neat, bright lawn, vile lives writhe in darkness. On the surface, Paul and Elaine are conventionally competitive middle-aged, middle-class people with banal yearnings for French doors and a new deck. They have two strapping boys. Their neighbors Pat and George are prodigies of efficient family life. But alone with Elaine, Pat drops the Stepford Wife mask and stages loveless orgies atop the throbbing washer, amid the Downy and Fantastik and Bon Ami. Meanwhile, Paul beds a local wife and a sinister mistress. The nice old man down the street downloads Internet child porn. Local kids join the Boy Scouts and bite off teachers' fingers. It's all about lurid misery and false fronts: a minor character is named Claire Roth, surely alluding to the bitter relationship in Claire Bloom's Leaving a Doll's House and Philip Roth's I Married a Communist.

Paul and Elaine first popped up in Homes's collection The Safety of Objects, as a couple having the happiest night of their lives smoking crack while the kids are away. Their happiest night here is when they tip the barbecue and burn their house halfway down. The story proceeds with a nightmare zombie logic from there, with a funny-scary ironic tone. "Paul notices that the color of her eye shadow is Fiction, and her lipstick is called Sheer Fraud.... 'What happened to the dining-room table, Elaine? Why'd you chop it to pieces?'" he wonders. "The damage was irreparable," his wife replies. Homes describes nice people doing not-so-nice deeds in luminous, precise prose way better than Bret Easton Ellis, as well as Joyce Carol Oates, and occasionally within range of John Updike. But Homes is really the evil spawn of Grace Metalious and Quentin Tarantino. --Tim Appelo

From Publishers Weekly

A child enters a suburban grammar school with a gun and explosives strapped to his body; a SWAT team moves in; a boy is shot at close range. This creepy and all too familiar scenario appears at a pivotal moment of Homes's latest novel (after The End of Alice), a caustically funny and eerily plausible portrait of a suburban family meltdown. In a nondescript Leave-it-to-Beaveresque Westchester neighborhood, Elaine and Paul find their marriage and their lives at a standstill: Paul commutes to a vaguely sinister corporate job ("how do you make people think fat is good?" asks his boss at one point) and enjoys weekly trysts with a neighbor, while Elaine plays housewife, attends school plays, and shops. Both feel desperately "stuck." In a fit of boredom and frustration, following two nights of cocktail parties and barbeques with the neighbors, the two kick their grill to the ground and partially burn down their house, an event that plunges them into a sordid suburban nightmare. Moving in with what seems the perfect couple, Pat and George, they leave their boys with families they scarcely knowAa decision with perilous consequences. Paul begins popping pills and has an affair with a friend's girlfriend, a psychic known only as "the date," who has a penchant for phone sex and persuades him to get a tattoo on his shaved crotch, while Elaine is seduced by Pat, a Stepford Wife with a penchant for sex toys. Homes unflinchingly documents the disintegration of Elaine and Paul's family, paying explicit attention to the sexual ennui and sadistic impulses roiling beneath the sterile veneers of their lives. The dark underbelly of the average American neighborhood may seem an obvious theme, and Homes's vision of marital dysfunction is long on sardonic humor and short on profundity. But the denoument to which this disquieting tale carefully builds is powerful enough to seem coextensive with the latest, and most distressing, real-life suburban horrors. (May)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1st edition (April 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 068816711X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688167110
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,339,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In looking at the reviews sumbitted by other readers, one can't help but notice that this novel elicits strong reactions. Either its a 5-star masterpiece or a 1-star piece of trash; a scathing revelation of suburban life or an attempt to demonize the generally suburban white upper-middle -class. However what stands out to this reader is not the specific reasons that one might like or dislike the book, but rather the vehemence with which the opinion is expressed.
Such powerful responses, both positive and negative, are the result of reading fantastic writing. Ms. Homes has the power to manipulate the reader's emotions through her words-- although the result is obviously different in each case. But there is no denying that reading this novel will affect the reader in some way. It just can't be ignored.
This novel is on the whole generally accessible on a surface level, but very gritty underneath. When Elaine offers the possibility of attending medical school while at a dinner party, one can't help but laugh at the absurdity-- and then immediately weep at the fact that Elaine would never be able to do such a thing.
This novel is worth the time and effort, as long as the reader has an open mind.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on January 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By David J. Loftus on April 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
When people noticed me reading this book and asked about it, Iexplained that "this woman writes filthy books in beautifulprose." Her previous novel, _The End of Alice_, blew me away with its incredible combination of audacity and sensitivity.
_Music For Torching_ looks (and is) more conventional than _Alice_. Yet Homes manages to make the supposedly tired and overworked theme of suburban alienation and angst suprisingly gripping. For the first half to two-thirds of the book, I enjoyed it as a sort of cartoon for grownups, with dimly recognizable people involved in farcical situations, and a sort of mild but ever-present threat in every line that seemed to promise anything could happen. Dialogue seems especially rich with implications and unspoken realities. (The word "fine" and variations on "Everything's fine" somehow rung every tone from biting irony to utter sincerity.)
But by the last third I found myself laughing out loud on occasion, and surprised to find myself actually caring about Paul and Elaine, the central couple of the plot. How did Homes do that?
Strange things happen all through the narrative -- a couple impulsively attempts to burn down their house, female suburbanites initiate a fiery sexual affair, a cop commits attempted rape -- but the author often manages to pinpoint the motivations of the characters to perfection. The sex between Paul and his mistress, "Mrs. Apple," for example, seems to capture the essence of an affair when it works.
I'm convinced this writer can do just about anything she wants. The only reason I give this book four stars is to indicate that _The End of Alice_ was a little stranger, a little more bracing, a little better. I'm rating Homes against herself here, not against other writers.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Hall on October 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Homes writes the things you think of but never speak aloud. Her novel, 'The End of Alice', was a disturbing and powerful piece of work, and not something I could see the mainstream public reading and remotely enjoying or understanding. 'Music For Torching' is a bit more accessible, but not much. This time around, Homes sets us down smack in the middle of a suburbia seemingly out of hell. Everyone is crazy, nuts, sexually charged and confused...could this be what we all are really like?
The characters are way out there, yet you can somehow identify and relate with them. Suddenly don't like where you live? Just burn down the house! The humor here is different and strange, and not everyone who reads this expecting normality is going to enjoy it. I myself was laughing aloud at many points.
If you enjoy a dark, scathing look at suburban life (I have to liken it a bit to the film 'American Beauty' but more twisted) then this is a book you should pick up immediately. Homes is a talented author and I will be looking forward to everything she writes.
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