Title: The Incendiaries
Author: R.O. Kwon
Content warnings: loss, grief, obsession, rape
Blurb (Goodreads): Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.
Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group–a secretive extremist cult–founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.
The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.
3 out of 5 topazes
The Incendiaries is an angstier, grown-up version of Paper Towns, except with an actual criminal for the main protagonist. Even so, this book averages out to 3 stars because while the characters and plot left much to be desired, the themes and their execution made me reflect in a way that I never had before.
Let’s start with Phoebe. Oh, Phoebe. One review on Goodreads said something along the lines of “Phoebe is Will’s manic pixie dream girl,” and she totally is – in the most typical way possible. She parties a lot, she drinks a lot, she dances a lot, and she’s kind of spacey…or so we think because we only ever get Will’s POV even when she’s talking. In fact, 98% of this book is told through the male gaze, specifically Will’s, and I understand that this is supposed to be some sort of narrative choice from R.O. Kwon, but it just made me think Will was even more of a – excuse my language – dick than he already is.
Speaking of Will, what a caricature. Absent dad, ill mother, broke, and in love with a girl who’s way too out of his league. He’s interesting in a caricaturistic way: an anti-hero, in a way. I enjoyed parts of his thoughts, but after a while, I just got a bit bored? Because he was just really angsty, and he ended up doing you-know-what to Phoebe in the name of love, and I was like HUH? Yet, despite his cardboard cutout status, he is interesting.
As for the other characters, I wanted WAY more of John. Like, WAY MORE. His chapters are literally one page, if that, and you only get a murky sense of who/what he is. Which is the point, I get that, but I feel like it would have been so much more fascinating – for the sakes of John, Phoebe, and reader – if John actually had long chapters like Will. That way, the character development would actually, I don’t know, exist? Really, I would have loved to live inside a cult leader’s mind.
And the plot. Um. That’s it?
The reason I’m giving this book 3 stars instead of 2 is because, while the characters lacked, I thought the questions about faith and religion hit close – too close – to home. Going to get a bit personal here: I was raised Catholic until I hit high school, and throughout those 14 years, I had a love-hate relationship with my family’s faith, the Church, and God.
When I was a child, I didn’t care about church: I just went because I had to. Church was one of those things to check off on the list – the thing that led to lunch, which was my favorite part about going to church. Until we went to the Saint Louis Catholic Church in downtown Louisville. That was when I felt Him. I have never had such a fulfilling relationship with God as I had with Him during Sunday masses at the Saint Louis. In fact, I absolutely loved going to church every Sunday; I listened raptly to the priests, and I shook his hands after mass; I prayed every night, I even tried doing the rosary (but lost count too many times), and I talked to God or Jesus or whomever would listen up in the clouds. I wasn’t like Will in that an event spurred me to God’s path; but I was like Will in that I felt safe and energized in His embrace.
And then…the questions began, and like Will said, all the doubts came in at once, and soon, I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t want to because I had become too much of a skeptic to believe in anything but reality…and everything about religion was too much of a fantasy for me at the time.
So I stopped going to church, despite my parents’ protests. And after a while, they stopped protesting as well. For all of high school – except for Christmas and Easter – I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. Even now, I’m not sure what to believe because though I stopped doing everything related to the establishment, that didn’t mean I stopped wanting to believe in – to love – God. Like Will said, “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.”
To this day, I feel the same.
Read: 12/28/20 – 12/29/20