Melissa Falcon Field alights on the literary fiction scene with her spell-binding debut novel, What Burns Away (Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2015). In a delicately woven tale of temptation and loyalty, new mom and protagonist Claire Spruce’s high school sweetheart resurfaces via social media at a vulnerable time in her life.
Claire’s husband, a career-driven cardiac surgeon, is usually hospital-bound when she most needs his support as she faces the daily challenges of raising the couple’s young son and trying to settle into a life in frigid Wisconsin as a reluctant Eastern seacoast transplant. What Burns Away will hit close to home for today’s parents, challenging the reader’s understanding of a new mother’s complicated feelings about herself, her child, her partner, her past and her future. Readers will find themselves questioning their ideas about boundaries, the power of the past and the fragility of life in the present tense.
One of the most compelling (and perhaps frightening) aspects of What Burns Away is the ease with which protagonist Claire Spruce journeys into the past that threatens to undo her happy family—through a simple message sent over a popular social media platform. Field is no stranger to that temptation. When she began writing the novel, she too was a new mother and had moved across the country to Madison with her husband.“I embraced social media as a means to stay connected…I viewed the virtual world as a safety net, a way to buoy myself from the loneliness, the boredom, and the malaise I felt over the choices we had made together,” she said. “But, truth be told, in those late night hours, nursing my son in the early dawn, with endless snow falling outside, I dug into my own past, searching out former lovers and friends, asking myself the dangerous question: ‘What if…?’”
Though Field says Claire connects to that past life more extremely, she doesn’t think the practice is uncommon. “Part of social media’s seduction, at least for those of us in our late 30s or early 40s, is the ability step back in time and rediscover former lovers and friends, those we lost along the course of our schooling or job transfers, and to see them again, voyeuristically, as the kids we remember—those phantoms from our youth, who also remember us as the kids we used to be, giving us a sort of time machine that allows us to get to know each other all over again.” But those doors don’t always result in a positive experience. Field cites discussions about social media that suggest it can be dangerous, too, especially during times of personal strife. “Through the lens of social media, we are able to replay, reimage, and revise a version of ourselves for public consumption. I remain fascinated by all the ways social media has changed the narratives we spin about our lives, and what it means to be able to connect with people whom you might have otherwise lost, or maybe should have let go, but have searched and found again. It’s complex territory.”
In many ways, this book can be thought of as a search for balance and normalcy. Of that, Field says, “I have always loved coming of age novels, and for me, middle age is the second coming of age, with its quest for a more balanced life. That in that moment in which a woman realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her has given me, and the women I respect most, a great deal of pause.”
When Claire does walk through the virtual portal that will ultimately show her just how far in the past her past actually is, she also revisits a fascination with fire. Physically and metaphorically, fire is central to the narrative of What Burns Away. Field admits that she has always been drawn to fire—“the heat of it, the light, the smell of wood burning, the crackle and hiss. As a kid growing up near Long Island Sound, I loved setting bonfires on the beach with my dad, and at home, even now, when my husband lights a candle, I can’t keep my fingers out of the wax.”
The science behind burning came later, though. As Field imagined Claire’s character, she researched the way flames behave. “In my backyard, while my son napped and my neighbors mowed their lawns…I lit Ping-Pong balls on fire. I made flamethrowers with aerosol cans. I studied combustion so that I could understand the thrill and fear you can feel playing with something so destructive. That thrill was something I learned, initially, only by proxy, as an inner-city schoolteacher in Boston. There, a 14-year-old girl in my 7th grade English class, who was deeply troubled, struck a match that would take her out of my charter school and into a juvenile detention center. I spent many afternoons with that young woman; I knew and loved her well, and I was both awed and terribly heartbroken by her actions, wondering all these years where she might be, and who that smart and haunted girl might’ve become.”
What Burns Away offers readers the chilling view through the sliding door, the music on the B-side of life’s cassette tape, inviting readers to consider “what could have been” in their own lives. Grab one of your unspent holiday gift cards and take it to the nearest bookstore before this book is out of stock. This novel is best read mid-winter, fireside.