“Things You Save in a Fire” by Katherine Center isn’t literally about things you would save in a fire. The main character, firefighter Cassie Hanwell, was born to be a firefighter. She’s a fascinating and complex character. When there’s an emergency, she gets calm and knows exactly what to do. She’s the one you want to be with when danger threatens. But in her own life, she’s helpless to get things on track.
Cassie has had lots of despair in her life, and she never talks about it. Her mother fell in love with a man and left Cassie and her father the night of Cassie’s 16th birthday, and that very evening something terrible happened to Cassie. She doesn’t talk about it. Ever. She and her father got along fine, but Cassie’s relationship with her mother, once a very close relationship, has suffered immensely. Cassie has never forgiven her for leaving them.
In the very first chapter of the book, we get a hint about the other terrible thing that happened that night of Cassie’s sixteenth birthday. Cassie is about to be honored for her bravery when she is stunned to realize that the presenter of the award is someone she hates. But hated Heath Thompson doesn’t know who Cassie is now, and he learns the hard way why she isn’t someone you want to mess with.
When her mother calls and asks a huge favor of Cassie, Cassie’s first response is to say no. She owes her mother no favors, nothing, after the way her mother treated her when she abandoned Cassie and her father. And Cassie still holds her mother responsible for what happened after she left, later that night, when the still-mysterious awful something happened. But Cassie’s father thinks she should go because her mother needs her. And then Cassie needs to leave the Austin Fire Department for a while because of her shocking action during the award incident with the much-hated Heath Thompson, and going to help her mother seems like a viable option. Especially when her department captain finds her a job at a fire station near Boston and her mother.
The first person narrative works well, so we get a sense of Cassie’s emotions. We learn about how completely Cassie has walled herself off from others — no friends, no close relatives, no romance. Being a firefighter, the best firefighter she can be, is of the utmost important to Cassie. She keeps herself at a distance from the other firefighters because she is the only female in her group, although the captain is a woman. And at her new station, the same holds even more true as they can’t imagine working side-by-side with a female.
Before Cassie left, her captain gave her a list of rules to follow in her new station. Cassie’s captain was one of the first female firefighters in Austin and at the top of her list is to never, ever get romantically involved with a fellow worker. That becomes difficult when Cassie — almost immediately — falls for the rookie firefighter who is starting work with her.
And here is where the story might have gotten syrupy. It could have gotten cheesy – and I was afraid it would. Cassie falls head over heels for that sweet, handsome, kind rookie who has started at the firehouse at the same time she does. He’s kind of incompetent in a bumbling way, and he faints at the sight of blood, but she’s smitten. Yet the writing is such that the reader doesn’t feel a lack of respect for Cassie making this huge error because Cassie herself doesn’t let her feelings interfere with her job. In fact, Cassie is determined not to let her feelings for the rookie come to fruition. But it’s hard, because he’s really adorable in every way, and she’s really smitten.
Center includes fascinating details about the job, about Cassie’s determination to keep fit, about how she impresses the other firefighters in her new station with her abilities so that they respect her.
Cassie’s mother becomes the catalyst for the change that Cassie really needs in her lonely life. Her mother teaches Cassie about forgiveness, most importantly, forgiving yourself as well as forgiving others. And while that’s a hard lesson to learn, the meat of the story, that part of the story that grips your heart and brings tears to your eyes, is about love and forgiveness and understanding. And in fact, we learn that Cassie isn’t the only one who needs to learn about forgiveness.
Center really writes a beautiful novel, one that will make readers think about how their lives might benefit from some of the lessons Cassie learns over the course of the story. It’s about forgiveness and love, but also about family and friends, and how none of us is an island.
There are so many questions that this story raises and that would be meaty topics for a book club. When is it all right to be selfish, even at the expense of others? How much should women have to prove themselves in what is a typically male profession? How much does guilt drive decisions we make? And the biggest questions might be: Revenge versus forgiveness: which is better and how does it make each person involved feel — the forgiver versus the recipient of the forgiveness.
If you read one book this summer, “Things You Save in a Fire” would be a great choice.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.