At the beginning of Kevin Wilson’s warm, funny, and insightful novel Nothing to See Here, two girls meet at an elite prep school in Tennessee. Madison, born into enormous wealth and privilege, is there because she has to be; Lillian, who comes from poverty and a broken home, is there because of her hard work. But when Madison is caught with cocaine, her father conspires with Lillian’s ne’er-do-well mother to have her daughter take the fall for it. The subsequent expulsion has a completely demoralizing effect on Lillian, and she drifts into her late twenties doing nothing in particular. Then, out of the blue, she’s summoned to the home of Madison, with whom she’s maintained a correspondence but hasn’t seen since their prep school experience. Madison is married to a senator whose star is on the rise, and they make Lillian an unexpected proposition: serve as governess to his twins from a previous marriage. The children have recently lost their mother and will soon come to live with their father and Madison on the former plantation they call home. Lillian will cohabitate with the children in the property’s refurbished slave quarters, be paid exorbitantly, and receive anything the three of them might need or want. If it all sounds a little too good to be true — especially given the fact that Lillian has no childcare experience whatsoever — that’s because it is. The twins, Bessie and Roland, have a peculiar and baffling affliction that can only be spottily managed: when they feel strong emotions like frustration, embarrassment, rage, or resentment they spontaneously combust. They’re completely unharmed by these outbursts, but the flames that emanate from them can obviously cause real damage to others as well as their surroundings. And so Lillian will not only care for the children but also try to understand as much as she can about their condition; help protect their powerful father from unwanted press scrutiny; and do other, more literal kinds of damage control. Nothing to See Here very cleverly throws a mundane occurrence into stark relief, and it’s one that most of us probably go out of our way to avoid looking at too closely: temper tantrums. By doing so, the novel manages to illuminate as much about adults’ relationships to feelings — their own and others’ — as it does about the emotional lives of children. Reflecting on her mother’s discomfort with her childhood imagination, for example, Lillian realizes that she consequently “kept [it] secret from the rest of the world.” This, of course, had further repercussions: “…if you keep something hidden away, all tied up, it’s hard to summon it when you really need it.” Much like the protagonist, readers will find themselves reassessing how they think about family dynamics, parenthood, and the communication of feelings. How to set appropriate boundaries with and rules of engagement for children while also honoring their feelings and supporting them in their emotional work? And what comparable work do we each need to undertake in order to best help children in these ways? In addition to inspiring these and other vital questions, Wilson tells his story in a lightheartedly satirical and wonderfully unpretentious way; this is a read that delights mightily, especially with its lovingly realized characters. (In my plot summary above, I didn’t even get a chance to mention Timothy, the very droll son of Madison and the senator, or Carl, their hilariously beleaguered assistant.) Nothing to See Here will definitely put a smile on your face, which makes it all the more impressive that it also provides so much to mull over afterward.
This title, like all others featured in the “Readers’ Advisory” section of this website, has been independently reviewed. However, if you buy a copy of the book using the link provided on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission from Bookshop.org, whose mission is to “financially support local, independent bookstores.”
This review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.