Another book from the day I browsed the New Books shelf without anything in particular in mind. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Katherine Center’s Everyone Is Beautiful (and I suspect I would appreciate this book even more these days, as it’s about a mother with too much piled on her plate and kids who are an absolute handful; when I last read it, I had one very calm child, and now I have a busy teenager and a kindergarten tornado). She tweeted about the review I’d written back then and thus has always stayed on my radar. I’d been hearing good things about her latest, Things You Save in a Fire (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), so I grabbed it off the shelf and brought it home with me.
Cassie Hanwell is pretty much one of the guys down at the firehouse. She’s had to learn to be, in order to be the most effective firefighter and paramedic possible; being a woman in what was traditionally a man’s job has meant always working twice as hard and sometimes even harder than that. And it’s paid off; she’s the best her department has to offer (with the exception of her boss, also a woman). But after an awards ceremony goes awry, Cassie is faced with losing the job she loves so much. The only thing that’s saving her is a transfer to a station out east to be by her semi-estranged mother, who is facing health challenges and needs her help. Cassie isn’t thrilled by any of this: her mother left her and her father on Cassie’s sixteenth birthday- a day that lives on in her memories for other terrible reasons- and their relationship has been strained ever since. And starting over as the only woman in an all-male firehouse? Not exactly ideal.
Cassie’s new firehouse is both better and worse than she expected, but the one thing she didn’t expect is Owen, the other newbie. With barely a single glance, Cassie’s head-over-heels, and thanks, she hates it. No matter how much she focuses on being better than everyone else in the firehouse and ignoring the creep who seems to be stalking and threatening her, her feelings for Owen won’t leave her alone. When her mother’s struggles come to a head, a devastating fire call just might end everything Cassie’s worked for her entire life, and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned, along with her razor-sharp instincts, to survive this.
Content warnings for rape (descriptions are never graphic and much is implied and left to the reader to fill in the blanks), mentions of various fire and medical-related trauma and death, including the death of children and serious burns, multiple references to terminal illness of various kinds, addiction, and suicide.
I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book narrated by a female firefighter before, so this was an introduction into a new world for me. Cassie has a fierce determination that pushes her to succeed in her chosen profession (a profession she never planned on but fell in love with anyway), but that plays as stubbornness in her personal life. The end of the opening scene will have you standing up and cheering for her entire badassity (which is totally a word), but Cassie has far more depth than what the public sees in that one incident.
Her relationship with her mother is beyond complicated, and Ms. Center has really delivered a complex story of a mother torn between two very different worlds, struggling to make amends in a way that speaks to her daughter’s heart. Cassie’s response to her mother’s attempts at connection is very, very real, and their blossoming relationships and baby steps they make towards repairing what was broken between them are an absolute gift to read. And thanks to her mother’s lessons, Cassie learns something about forgiveness that I need to consider a little more deeply.
The newbie, Owen, another firefighter who never really saw himself in the profession but who wound up there anyway (but who lacks Cassie’s fire and dedication to it), is a close-to-perfect hero. Respectful, understanding, eager to learn and eager to give credit where it’s due, it was easy to see what drew Cassie to him. There was one aspect of their relationship later on that seemed this side of unrealistic, but otherwise, this was a super sweet relationship that I very much enjoyed reading.
There’s some fast-paced action leading up to the point in the story where everything falls apart (I always think of this as ‘The Big Awful,’ I have no idea why), and I don’t know if this really was more awful than most, or if it just seemed that way because in general, fires freak me out, as does the kind of injustice Cassie experiences afterwards. Ms. Center absolutely turns these episodes into carefully tended works of art, and I think my discomfort, especially at Cassie’s ill treatment, speaks to how well-written these parts really are.
And I have to give Ms. Center a major internet high-five; when Cassie realizes the obstacle course she’ll have to complete at the firehouse isn’t built for a 5’5″ woman but rather a much taller man, she goes on YouTube and begins to learn parkour techniques in order to help her manage the course in a more efficient way. My son was super into parkour when he was little and so I spent many days watching Jump City Seattle and early Sasuke/Ninja Warrior and American Ninja Warrior videos with him, so it always makes my heart happy to see mentions of parkour in literature. Brings me right back to those days of watching my son bounce through the trees behind our house and watching videos with him on the couch. (And this section wouldn’t be complete without a link to my favorite parkour video of all time.)
What a gem of a book (and what a gorgeous cover!). This is another I’m glad I discovered through the blogs and glad I ran into at the library.