Book Review: Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel about family, hope, and learning to love against all odds. 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to uproot her life and move to Boston, it’s an emergency of a kind Cassie never anticipated.

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the handsome rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because she doesn’t fall in love. And because of the advice her old captain gave her: don’t date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping…but will she jeopardize her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt, affecting novel about life, love, and the true meaning of courage.

Things You Save in a Fire is, at first glance, a pretty standard contemporary romance — but it’s also an exploration of trauma, forgiveness, institutionalized sexism, and so much more.

Cassie, at age 26, is a decorated, respected firefighter, an established, well-loved member of an Austin firehouse. Her life falls apart on the night when she’s receiving an award for outstanding bravery, when the presenter ends up being someone from her past, and she completely loses it on stage, leaving the presenter in the hospital and herself on the verge of being fired.

She does have a way out of the situation. Her mother had earlier called Cassie and asked her to come stay with her in her small town outside of Boston. Cassie’s mother Diana left her and her father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, and since then, the two have had a distant, unpleasant relationship. Now, though, Diana has lost sight in one eye after surgery, and asks Cassie to stay with her for a year to help her out with the things she can no longer do on her own. Cassie initially refuses, but after her meltdown, she sees an opportunity to request a transfer to the local fire station and start again.

The crew in the new town is much different than the fairly progressive Austin station. The guys (and yes, they’re all male) are old-school Boston firefighters, who see no place for a woman in their house. Cassie is determined to prove herself, and fortunately, she has years of training and hard work behind her, so it’s quickly clear to the other firefighters that she’s the best of the bunch. Still, someone is unhappy with her being there, and starts an underhanded campaign of stalking and harassment to drive her away. The question is, who’s behind it?

Complicating matters are Cassie’s unwanted but undeniable feelings for the rookie, who is kind, attractive, and very attentive to Cassie. Cassie has ruled out romance or relationships from her life long ago, but she’s having a hard time fighting the chemistry with the rookie — despite knowing that getting involved with another firefighter will torpedo her career for good.

There are hints early on about the trauma in Cassie’s past, but she doesn’t think about it or discuss it until much later in the book. Still, we can see the aftereffects and it’s clear that she’s suffered for all these years, even though she thinks she’s compartmentalized her past and that it doesn’t affect her in her present. The relationship with Diana is puzzling at first, and initially, I had no sympathy for Diana. What kind of mother abandons her child like that for the sake of an affair? As we learn, there’s much more to the story. Cassie’s baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness in her relationship with her mother is what eventually enables her to embrace the possibility of greater empathy and connection elsewhere in her life.

I was fascinated by the depictions of life in a firestation, and had nothing but admiration for Cassie’s mad skills and her practical, hard-as-nails approach toward earning her spot. At the same time, it’s hard to read about a workplace and lifestyle that so clearly resists the entrance of women in every way possible — which makes Cassie’s determination all the more impressive.

The theme of forgiveness is quite lovely. Cassie learns that forgiveness is possible, even (and especially) when it’s hard, and possibly the last thing you actually want to do. By practicing forgiveness, Cassie opens herself to connections that she otherwise might never have known, and her life is ultimately enriched in ways she’d never thought she’d experience.

The action in the last third of the book really heats up (no pun intended) as there’s a big fire that the crew battles that has awful consequences. Once I got to this part, I simply couldn’t stop reading until the end!

I enjoyed this powerful story very much, and really appreciated the unusual perspective provided by a tough, troubled young woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated environment. Above all, the relationships and Cassie’s growth are what make this book so special. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Things You Save in a Fire
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Mother’s Promise

mothers-promiseKeep your Kleenex handy before picking up The Mother’s Promise.

The Mother’s Promise is the story of an unusual yet tightly connected mother and daughter, and the two women who enter their inner circle.

Alice is a 40-year-old single mother who receives the dreaded news that she has ovarian cancer and requires immediate surgery. Zoe is her 15-year-old daughter, a smart girl who’s practically crippled by her overwhelming social anxiety disorder. There’s no one else in their lives — no close friends, no relatives apart from Alice’s alcoholic brother. Zoe’s father has never been in the picture, and Zoe knows nothing about him.

Kate is the oncology nurse looking after Alice. Kate is married to a wonderful man and has two too-good-to-be-true teen-aged stepchildren, but her happy marriage is now on the verge of crumbling under the stress of infertility treatments and multiple miscarriages.

(Do we see where this is going yet? In this case, unpredictability may be overrated. More on this later…)

The fourth character in this circle is Sonja, the social worker assigned to Alice’s case, who steps in to make sure that Alice gets the support she needs as well as to make sure that Zoe has a roof over her head and someone to care for her when Alice’s condition worsens. Sonja, of course, has her own set of hidden problems and pains.

The novel shows these four women coming together, all with their own inner turmoil and emotional trauma, and finding healing and support through each others’ helping hands. The story unfolds via chapters told from all four points of view, so we get insights into what it feels like to be in their shoes.

In Zoe’s case, this is particularly affecting. Zoe’s situation is pure, utter agony. She’s so debilitated by her social anxiety that she can never speak in class, feels ashamed every time she walks down the school hallway, and agonizes over other kids’ opinions to such an extent that , for example, she never allows herself to eat in public for fear that she’ll do something embarrassing and everyone will stare or laugh at her. Being in Zoe’s mind is exhausting and sad, but also fascinating. Here’s a girl with so much to offer, and she just can’t do the things that will help her fit in, no matter how hard she tries. Her mother really and truly is all she has, and it’s terrifying for both of them to realize that her entire life is dependent on Alice being there.

For Alice, the diagnosis comes completely out of the blue (as is so often the case with ovarian cancer). In a particularly moving scene, Alice hears the doctor and nurse pouring information out at her about the tests and the results and the treatment, and yet can’t even recognize the word “cancer” as applied to herself until about the 3rd or 4th time it’s said in her presence. Alice is committed to being positive, but her positivity crosses into denial over the seriousness of her condition and her poor prognosis.

Kate and Sonja’s storylines, while part of the novel, get less time than Alice and Zoe’s, but they each still emerge as individuals with their own lives, worries, and needs.

So what did I think of The Mother’s Promise? Hold on, let me wipe that last tear and then I’ll let you know…

Obviously, this is a heart-wrenching, gut-punching book. That should be clear from the start. It’s about a single mother with ovarian cancer — let’s not kid ourselves about this having a happy ending.

As I mentioned from the start, the resolution of the story is easy to see coming from very early on — but that in no way diminishes the impact. The importance thing in The Mother’s Promise is the journey, not the destination. Zoe in particular is the one to watch — there’s no instant cure for her social anxiety disorder, but she makes small steps toward breaking out of her old ways, and even manages to push past a truly awful moment of humiliation that any teen, even without anxiety issues, would have an extremely hard time getting over. It’s lovely to see Zoe’s determination to try, and enlightening to be inside her head and to learn what it feels like to be such a wounded, vulnerable soul.

Kate is lovely. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a woman who loses all of the dreams of the kind of future she wants, and yet finds a way to be open and caring and nurturing. It’s a beautiful story arc, and I wish we got to spend more time with her. Maybe a sequel??

I have mixed feelings about Alice. Obviously, she’s worthy of sympathy and compassion, and her ordeal is horrible. I just wish the storytelling around Alice was a bit more consistent. The chapters told from her perspective are quite moving, of course, yet we cut away to other people’s perspectives at times when I wanted to know how Alice was feeling, phyically and emotionally, such as during her initial hospitalization and recovery from surgery.

As for Sonja — her story weaves in some themes that are important and worthy of attention, but at the same time, she feels extraneous to the story. Again, I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’ll be vague. It’s not that Sonja’s sections aren’t interesting. I just felt that you could remove her pieces from the novel, and the core of the story would not lose anything. Perhaps this is just trying to fit one too many story threads into one novel. It’s a good thread, but unnecessary.

I started The Mother’s Promise knowing I’d probably dissolve at some point while reading it, and that’s a pretty accurate picture of what happened. Mothers and daughters? Cancer? Helplessly watching a parent suffer? Children with no one to care for them? Oh, this book knew exactly how to push my buttons! Waterworks galore.

But still — The Mother’s Promise is a beautiful book despite all the heartache. The relationships are complex and feel real, with fragile people strengthened by their unbreakable emotional bonds. Some tearjerker books feel too deliberate, as if the author sat down and said, “Hmm. How can I make my readers cry?”. Not The Mother’s Promise. Yes, there will be tears, but they’re genuine and feel earned.

Definitely read The Mother’s Promise. It’s powerful and well-written, and will make you look at your loved ones with new, appreciate eyes. And, definitely worth mentioning, the book does an admirable job of showing the power of women caregivers, nurses, and nurterers — people who change lives on a daily basis. Kudos to the author for such a sensitive and fine portrayal of roles that are often overlooked.

For more by this author, check out her amazing (and equally heart-wrenching) previous novel, The Things We Keep (review).

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The details:

Title: The Mother’s Promise
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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