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on July 22, 2001
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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on July 29, 2000
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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on July 21, 2006
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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on August 14, 1999
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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on August 3, 2007
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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on March 13, 2000
(More like three-and-a-half stars) Set This House on Fire is probably Styron's least accessible book, laden as it is with abstruse psychological analyses of the characters, and frequent, lengthy digressions into events unrelated to the main story. The first half of the novel is very tautly-written, but this unravels later on when the point of view suddenly shifts. As with all of Styron's books, we are treated to ample doses of sex, death, and alcoholic dazes. But they don't seem to mesh quite so well in this book as they do in his others. And several parts of the book don't ring true: Cass Kinsolving's lengthy philosophical excursions seem forced and are often not very interesting. The causes for his alcoholism are never fully explored. He recalls his dreams and visions ad nauseum. And the moral lesson that the reader is to draw from this saga, so clearly and beautifully rendered in Styron's other works, comes off here as a somewhat jumbled, incoherent mess. The book gives the impression of vast authorial ambition, but that ambition is never fully realized. Styron's magnificent writing does, however, manage to hold the reader's attention through to the end.
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on December 17, 2003
In a small Italian village, shortly after World War II, three Americans converge. One is a Southern lawyer, the other is a rough-edged artist with a strong penchant for alcohol and the third one is a delightful aristocrat who is the closest thing possible to wickedness. Out of this reunion, William Styron has crafted a fabulous novel of rape, murder, suicide and deception with an insight of the dreadful persuasiveness of evil. The qualities of this novel are many, ranging from the sense of the striking scene, the fine art of the dialogue, the sharp depiction of cities, Italian scenery and interiors. William Styron is certainly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. This is my favourite book by this author.
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on March 21, 2008
I read this book when I was an undergraduate at Columbia College in the mid 1980's. I remember being absolutely captivated by the glamor of it all. Alone in my dorm room, surrounded by rich kids, feeling like a cockroach, I gobbled up the lush Italian setting, the boozing and the brawls, the colorful supporting cast of millionaires and movie stars and barefoot Italian beauties. The central conflict was a classic man to man battle like MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The dashing charm of the corrupt boyish American millionaire, Mason Flagg, matched against the primitive male courage of Cass Kinsolving, the tough Southern Marine turned painter.

Since I was a lowly "charity boy" (Financial Aid student) at Columbia (though mired in the urban squalor Manhattan's Upper West Side, surely the most smugly and primly elitest of all the so-called great American universities) the loneliness of the blue collar intellectual and the hypocrisies of the affluent American liberal had great resonance for me. There were so many times when I saw myself in Cass' shoes, smashing a big rock in the faces of smug, fake professors who spouted liberal catch phrases but clearly couldn't care less about the troubled REAL lives of their students. In those days Cass Kinsolving was my hero. My own decision to join the Marines (as an enlisted man, NOT an officer) shortly after graduating with a completely un-marketable and worthless BA in English literature was in large measure a response to the power of William Styron's art.

Having said that, however, when I reread the book recently I was shocked at how my impressions had changed. Looking back now, I don't see Cass as a very heroic character at all. His self-pity and sentimentality are much more apparent to me now that I've lived nearly 45 years. I've supported myself the whole way, unlike Cass, who drinks and sponges to stay alive. And Mason, who was supposed to be fiendishly evil, in a profoundly disturbing way, now seems to me like nothing more than a one-dimensional villain of the Snidely Whiplash variety. He's yet another cowardly Yankee scalawag, and Cass finds "redemption" not by searching his own soul but by passing judgment on someone else.

Conveniently, Mason is a coward, and conveniently, Cass is honor bound to kill a man he already hates for all the wrong reasons. Styron is clearly working off an ancient grudge when the cowardly Yankee turns and runs the minute the southern boy picks up a rock and gives the rebel yell. But in real life, Yankees don't always turn and run(see Pickett's Charge). More than that, a Southerner who is really looking for redemption has got to go beyond the old, soothing stereotypes of sniveling Yankee cowards and fearless southern chivalry. Styron blows his horn all through the novel about wanting to create great tragedy, to shatter materialism, offer redemption, and the like, but in the end he settles for cheap shots at safe targets, creating trite melodrama rather than seeking to ask tough questions.

Personally, I think it was really Cass who killed Francesca -- because he was too drunk to get it up!
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on March 16, 1999
Extraordinary in its truest sense. Possibly not for Everyman (though I detest such elitism as much as the next guy), this epic paints in strokes broad and fine the tale of three Americans unwittingly ensnared in the Tragic Muse's web in the post-war, bucolic setting of a hillside village in Italy. Whether or not an insatiable reader of William Syron's work, you might agree that this one stands alone. Though it may seem emulating of the writings of preceding expatirates (the likes of Hemingway or Fitzgerlad, say), Styron's story telling has unfailingly transcended any standards set by the maverick American literatti. His love of the classics (particularly the Greeks) shines through brilliantly here. The themes of the story are wrought out of vast sensuality, a fierce and aggressive intellectualism, and a persistent dramatic satire of the dichotomy of materialism and metaphysical angst. Styron is one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language -- but better than that, he has an enquiring and theatrical perception of modern man. This novel is as much travelogue of the soul as it is of Italy. Sophocles would be proud. (Read it and see what the heck I mean by that!)
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on September 8, 2014
You get the feeling while reading Set This House on Fire that with this 1960 novel, his second, author William Styron was practically busting a gut to turn out the Great American Novel. Its sheer length, its sophisticated (and arguably over-) use of multiple perspectives, its see-sawing timeline and its focus on big initial-cap issues like Sin, Redemption, Love, Mortality, Justice, etc., all scream "Take This Seriously, Please!"

But like a batter consciously trying to hit a home run, Styron whiffs. Well, perhaps that's too harsh, because there are many good things in this book: numerous brilliantly described scenes of confrontation and conflict, interesting if maddening characters and great descriptions of the setting in Southern Italy. In fact, until about halfway through the book I was ready to compose a five-star review.

But then, the story takes an unfortunate turn as the initial narrator, Peter Leverette, takes a back seat to Cass Kinsolving, an alcoholic would-be artist whose free-form philosophical jags bog down what had been a compelling story. We are informed near the beginning by Leverette that he is recalling the events surrounding a brutal rape/murder that also resulted in the death of the supposed perpetrator of that crime, Mason Flagg, a brilliant but unstable former schoolmate of Leverette. Great setup made even better by the first quarter of the book, where we meet a cavalcade of interesting characters, including some movie people shooting a film on location.

The probably bi-polar Flagg is a fascinating rich-boy dick who for some reason generates sympathy and respect from most of the other characters, even those he abuses. He is a kind of dark-side Gatsby to Leverette's Nick Carraway, a submissive type bedazzled and bamboozled by Flagg's dominating personality. Kinsolving, meanwhile, reminded me, if anything, of Malcolm Lowry's booze-addled consul in Under the Volcano with his did-that-happen-or-did-I-imagine-it view of the goings-on. Neither is particularly sympathetic. The one who is sympathetic is the poor girl who is the victim of the crime, but she gets little screen time, most of it toward the end, and is more a plot device than a character.

Styron tries to manufacture profundity out of this admittedly compelling core situation but flubs it. His resolution smacks of the cynical and the pat, involving the intervention of a conveniently compliant police officer. It doesn't help that some of those interesting people from the first part of the book just disappear.

I enjoyed reading large parts of Set This House on Fire but I also toiled through some other parts. Were I Styron's editor, I would have strongly suggested some major trimming, especially of Kinsolving's narration and also the ending which seems to go on and on after the point has been made.

Styron wasn't exactly a prolific novelist, and Set This House on Fire is an excellent example of why. It obviously took years to compose and refine. Nothing wrong with that but I wish the end result had been better.
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