“Growing up in False River, Mississippi, Clea Shine learned early that a small town is no place for big secrets. Having fled years ago in the wake of a tragedy and now settled with a family of her own, she faces a turning point in her marriage and seeks refuge in the one place she vowed never to return.
Clea’s homecoming is bittersweet. Reunited with Jerusha Lovemore, the kindly neighbor who raised her, Clea gains a sense of love and comfort, but still cannot escape the ghosts of her past: the abandonment by her disreputable mother, her constant search for belonging, the truth behind that fateful night from long ago. Once outspoken and impulsive, Clea now seeks only redemption and peace of mind. And as a hurricane threatens to hit False River, everything she has tried to forget may finally be exposed once and for all.”
Thoughts: In Carolyn Wall’s Playing with Matches, a reader comes face-to-face with what can only be termed as an eclectic cast of characters brought together by familial bonds as established by blood and by love. At the center of this group is Clea, a young girl abandoned by her mother at birth but forced to watch this same mother live her life as Clea’s next-door neighbor. The “mommy issues” that abound culminate in a tragedy that impacts all of their lives and directly correlate to Clea’s trust issues as an adult. When seeking refuge among those who loved her as a child, Clea is forced to reconcile her past in order to be able to come to grips with her present and be able to move on with her future.
Clea Shine is a character about whom readers can sympathize but with whom they cannot empathize. This is a key difference that directly relates to one’s understanding of Clea’s motivations and overall enjoyment of Playing with Matches. While it easy for a reader to feel sorry for Clea because of her abandonment issues, her warring desires to seek her mother’s approval and to put as much distance between her and her mother’s chosen profession and town infamy remain more difficult to fathom. Much of this is the fault of the first-person narrative, as a reader must weed through the emotions and mental capacity of Clea as a child during the key scenes in the novel. Even though Clea is an intelligent child, she is extremely naïve and conceited, which makes discerning the truth a somewhat trying task. Along a similar vein, while adult Clea is very relatable, child Clea is not very likable. Her naiveté seems misplaced for the time of the story, and her unwillingness to learn more about her fellow neighbors let alone learn from past mistakes makes her fairly unpalatable. One’s understanding of Clea improves once the story jumps ahead in time to when Clea is an adult but by that time the damage is done.
There is a constancy to Playing with Matches that creates a dreamlike quality throughout the entire novel. The meandering lifestyle that exists in False River is as appropriate for the late 1800s as it is for the more current decades. While this does much to establish the timelessness of Clea’s simultaneous derision of and desire for her mother, it also can create some very jarring moments while reading when the true time period makes itself known. Snippets such as songs on the radio, descriptions of car makes and models, media references, and the mention of various electronic equipment on the surface, while establishing a time frame for reference, never fail to surprise a reader at the modernity of the tale. While this is not a bad thing, it can be decidedly unsettling.
Playing with Matches is one of those novels which requires an emotional connection between the reader and the main character for total enjoyment. Without it, the entire story fails to impress or live up to its potential. Readers may find it difficult to establish that essential emotional bond because Clea’s character remains such a conundrum throughout the story. The story jumps from random event to random event, failing to allowing the reader a full understanding of Clea’s thoughts and actions. The jumps through time create a jaggedness that only serves to accentuate just how little a reader truly knows her. That being said, the shining beacon in the entire novel is Auntie, who remains the steadfastly loyal and loving caretaker that she shows herself to be within the first few pages. While Clea remains unclear and relatively undefined, Auntie is the exact opposite. Had Clea been as well-defined as Auntie, or at least more vibrant, Playing with Matches would have been a powerful novel about the need to belong and the power of love. Instead, it is a rather insipid, predictable story that tries to eke out drama where none exists.