In the end, the gushing romance novel entirely overwhelms the well-honed realism. It’s too bad, because Mendelsohn has a serious point to make ... Mendelsohn has constructed her narrative well and disposed of her characters according to their karmic deserts, but she has let her romantic sensibilities overpower her artistic judgment.
Mendelsohn is an expert juggler of characters, and even with a cast list this long, she carefully balances the Zanes and near-Zanes. The interplay between them feels natural and is perhaps the strongest technical quality of the book. Regardless of what one thinks about Mendelsohn’s purple prose, her ability to foster what feels like genuine interactions between her characters keeps the Zanes—and the novel—from becoming just another Tragedy in the Ivory Tower.
[Burning Down the House] is a melodramatic mess: suspenseful, even moving at times, but atrociously overwritten and overstuffed with implausible plot twists, stereotyped characters and scenes oozing sweat and tears ... Burning Down the House is not without reminders of Ms. Mendelsohn’s evocative abilities. Sadly, these elements don’t make up for the ponderous, portentous storytelling in this high-strung and histrionic novel.
[Mendelsohn] is utterly shameless about defying everything we reasonably know to be true about the world in order to make her story work. Shameless and also brilliant. Once you’ve absorbed Mendelsohn’s True-Detectiveish attitude to realism, you might also find yourself still loving the writing. Sure, there are moments of frustration but there are also moments of genius.