Remove Mary Poppins’s umbrella, set Jane and Michael Banks on fire and you would have the basic premise of Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here.” After years of estrangement, Lillian receives a desperate letter from her once-best friend, Madison, asking her to take care of her two stepchildren, Bessie and Roland, in the wake of their mother’s abrupt death. Upon arrival to Madison’s wealthy estate, Lillian learns that the children she is now responsible for spontaneously combust into flames when agitated — in the following pages, she discovers that they like to bite people, too. The ten-year old children, much like Lillian herself, are social rejects — their unfortunate bowl cuts and tendency to burst into flames set themselves in stark contrast to their peers. Not that they have a chance to even meet other children, given that they are confined to an isolated house their father had made just for them, one fitted with a complete sprinkler system. The novel follows Lillian, Bessie and Roland as they learn how to trust each other and break down the emotional barriers that they have erected in response to past traumas.
Lillian’s working-class background situates her as a commentator on the lavish lifestyles of Madison and her husband, Jasper, providing readers with a steady stream of sarcasm and wit. It includes a healthy mix of humorous scenes, including trips to the local library to steal books about Dolly Parton and emotional reconciliations typical of a feel-good movie. All that is missing is a musical number.
But, even if this novel is an easy read, it is not a wholly superficial one. It could have been written very poorly, especially in regards to character portrayal. It would have been easy for Wilson to fall into the trap of typical binary character depictions by painting Madison as an evil-rich stepmother character, or Bessie and Roland as gentle but misunderstood children who just want their father’s love. But the characters that Wilson presents to us are flawed, angry, spiteful and, thus, much more human.
Nevertheless, certain events in “Nothing to See Here” are settled in a way that is disappointingly lighthearted, just a bit too easy and optimistic. The ending is summed up neatly — it is predictable. While Wilson does a good job building up the plot to a certain point, he ultimately lets the crescendo fall flat. The deeper issues of confronting emotional manipulation and damage are hinted at several times throughout the novel, but they are packaged very abruptly, even unrealistically, in the remaining few pages. Though these problems are logistically solved, there remains a dubious feeling of unresolve.
When I turned the last page, I didn’t feel gutted — just mildly annoyed. There are flashes of potentially compelling moments, but they quickly fizzle out. If there is a way to describe this novel, it would be to return to the Mary Poppins comparison and catalog it as a Disney movie in literary form. With a witty lead character, a tinge of romance and just enough altercations to make readers sweat but not cause damage that can’t be resolved neatly at the end, “Nothing to See Here” hints that there is something to see here, but not too much.