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Set This House on Fire Paperback – January 4, 1993

3.7 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Immediately impressive...the sense of the striking scene...the fine ear for dialogue, the sharp observation of cities and scenery and interiors."

-- The New York Times Book Review

Three Americans converge in an Italian village shortly after World War II. One is a naive Southern lawyer. One is a rough-edged artist with a fatal penchant for alcohol. And one is a charming and priapic aristocrat who may be the closest thing possible to pure wickedness in an age that has banished the devil along with God. Out of their collective alchemy William Styron has crafted an electrifying and deeply unsettling novel of rape, murder, and suicide -- a work with a Dostoevskian insight into the dreadful persuasiveness of evil.

About the Author

One of the great writers of the generation succeeding that of Hemingway and Faulkner, William Styron is renowned for the elegance of his prose and his powerful moral engagement. His books include Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice, This Quiet Dust, and Darkness Visible. He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the Howells Medal, and the Edward MacDowell Medal.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (January 4, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679736743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679736745
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #423,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I love William Styron, I have read all his books, yet I would not recommend picking up "Set This House on Fire" unless you've read some of his other works first. It's lengthy-in certain cases, such as the voluminous number of pages devoted to Cass Kingsolving's abysmal drunkenness, to the point of excess-and at times seems aimless. The story is told from the point of view of a character who is relatively uninvolved in the rape, death, and depression that ensue. Some of the most interesting passages are those which give us glimpses into the main characters' pasts. Taken separately, many of these sections make for wonderful, lucid parts of a story. But, when interspersed with lengthy, often difficult, descriptions of dark emotion and personal despair, they can be a bit drowned out.

On the up side, there are many passages that are delightful to read, and Styron's elegant prose doesn't fail to shine through. Definitely worth reading if you've read and enjoyed "Sophie's Choice" or "Lie Down in Darkness." Otherwise, you'll probably be overwhelmed by the density (both lengthwise and in terms of content) of this novel.
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Format: Paperback
In search of a challenging read, and intrigued by the Italian locale of much of the story, I picked up this 500+ page book at the library one day during lunch. Styron's vocabulary is immense, and his prose is quite enjoyable to read. The 1st part of the book is pretty absorbing, but the middle part is so slow and drawn out that it makes getting to the fairly interesting end rather tedious. The main problem I had was the inordinate focus on Cass' recollections. His recollections of North Carolina and the South I liked, but Cass' actions are not particulary considerate towards his family, and he is not an especially sympathetic character (esp. given his own self-destructive tendencies). I did not view Mason as some kind of evil incarnate, and ultimately the character of Leverett is not developed and fades into the background. Finally, given the book came out in 1960, some of the cultural differences and clashes brought out in the book (e.g. Mason talking about the Beats) seem a little dated. Nevertheless, the European setting and exquisite writing style compelled me to see the book to its (largely satisfactory) ending. If you have the time, and patience, this book may well be worth your while.
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Format: Paperback
This book, Styron's finest, is about redemption. Heralded by the epigraph from John Donne, the intricately structured tale with its Marlowian manipulations of narrative points of view soon becomes so enthralling that it's impossible to put down. But it's also to Styron's great credit that the novel's theme, redemption through confrontation with death and violence, is reflected through its feverish style. There are not many books in the postwar era, and none in the United States, that have such a non-moralistic but intensely moral character and impact. Echoes of the Greek tragedians (several times evoked in the text) and of Dostoyevski abound. Finally, the crucial role by the most-fleshed out non-expatriate character, a philosophical Italian small-town cop named Luigi, elevates the moral drama to a metaphysical dimension that most contemporary writers don't even seem to understand, let alone approach. It's a shame that Styron has not received the Nobel Prize yet.
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Format: Paperback
Much like Sophie's Choice, this novel will no doubt haunt the reader for years to come. Styron has an uncanny ability to render unlikeable characters in a human way that makes one nearly sympathize with them. I take issue with the reviewers who criticize the digressions and flashbacks that buttress the story. The two critical characters of Cass Kinsolving and Mason Flagg are fleshed-out by virtue of the digressions, making their extraordinary actions understandable and realistic. The characters ultimately behave as they should, but not in an entirely predicatable fashion either. What I appreciate about this novel is the way Styron intertwines the root mystery with a novel of ideas. He meditates quite gracefully on suffering, evil, art, and existence without overwhelming the reader. It's a page-turner, gorgeously written, yet demanding. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the southern noir of Flannery O'Conner or the late-fifties malaise of Richard Yates.
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Format: Paperback
Styron somehow manages to find a glimmer of hope amid the the swirl of self-destructiveness which envelops the two leading protagonists, Cass Kinsolving, an inebriate unaccomplished painter from modest North Carolina roots, and Mason Flagg, a demonically charming neer do well who has settled in an idyllic Italian coastal town along with a Hollywood cast filming a B movie. The third protagonist, the narrator, first meets Mason at a Newport News prep school and is cast under the spell of Mason's luxurious home on the river entranced by his beautiful and sensous mother. Styron magically explores the self-destructive impulse with humor, empathy, and ultimately, redemptive hope. This is one of the finest novels in the canon of modern American literature.
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Format: Paperback
This novel has tremendous potential at being great until about half way through the story loses it's momentum and things turn into overextended psychological rants by Cass Kinsolving. This one was hard to get through, and the ending is anticlimactic. I started to wonder how much more superflous and prosiac the descriptions could be to convey a simple concept, and how many more times do they have to be repeated? Definitely not a good starting point for a Styron neophyte. It's as if the purpose of the sex and violence in the story is to keep you awake.
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