Things You Save in a Fire front covr
Written by: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 2019
Total pages: 310 (ebook edition)
STC Genre: Rites of Passage
Literary Genre: Romantic Women’s Fiction

Author Katherine Center is known for a number of bestselling novels, including How to Walk Away, Happiness for Beginners, What You Wish For, and The Lost Husband. If that final title sounds familiar, it’s because it was made into a Netflix movie last year starring Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb. However, it was another one of Center’s releases, Things You Save in a Fire, that caught my attention this summer. I devoured the ebook in a day and have been pondering certain scenes and themes from it ever since. The book was called “a gem” by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult, who also wrote that it’s “a story that reminds us that the word emergency has, at its heart, a new beginning.” This idea had me intrigued.

I’m a big fan of both romance and romantic women’s fiction. It’s often tempting for readers to lump them together, but there’s a difference between those literary genres, and this particular novel falls squarely into the latter category. It has compelling and strongly romantic elements for sure (with a smokin’ hot firefighter, no less!), but the Buddy Love aspect, while important, is secondary. What makes this book a women’s fiction tale is the focus on the main character’s emotional journey, which is one of deep self discovery. It requires her to finally deal with the traumas of her past before she can choose the direction of her future.

Given the themes involving family life, childhood loss/grief, and facing issues from adolescence, this is a quintessential Rites of Passage story. As per the Save the Cat!® elements for this genre, there’s a major life problem—two big ones, in fact, a wrong way to attack these problems, and eventually, a solution that only arrives when our protagonist accepts the hard truths she’s been avoiding for years.

From the back cover:

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 a total pro at other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to give up her whole life and move to Boston, Cassie suddenly has an emergency of her own.
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 infatuation-inspiring rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because love is girly, and it’s not her thing. And don’t forget the advice her old captain gave her: Never date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping… and it means risking it all—the only job she’s ever loved, and the hero she’s worked like hell to become.
Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt and healing tour-de-force about the strength of vulnerability, the nourishing magic of forgiveness, and the life-changing power of defining courage, at last, for yourself.

This Indie Next Pick (August 2019) was one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2019 (She Reads), among the 25 Best New Books of Summer 2019 (Good Housekeeping), and a Must Read Women’s Fiction of 2019 selection (USA Today). Things You Save in a Fire also received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, the latter calling it “insightful, entertaining, and thoroughly addictive.”

Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this novel of forgiveness, self-love, and redemption:

Opening Image (pages 1 – 3): Cassie is at a big professional banquet, about to be the youngest person and the only female to receive the valor award from the Austin Fire Department, when her partner of three years, Hernandez (described by Cassie as a “Latino firefighting Ken doll”), begins to hit on her for the first time ever. This is not the kind of attention from him she either wants or expects.

Theme Stated (page 4): The flirtation turns out to be a prank—an attempt to distract her from her obvious nervousness at the banquet—but Hernandez inadvertently touches a painful nerve. After Cassie insists that despite her utter lack of a love life or even an occasional date, she’s not lonely, her teasing partner turns serious when he states, “You’re the loneliest person I know.” She thinks about this comment frequently throughout the story because it’s sadly true. She’s been so numb to personal connection for so many years that she hadn’t even realized her loneliness. This leads to Cassie’s eventual revelation that “the antidote to loneliness is the courage to love and be loved.” And this refers not only to romantic relationships, but to every relationship in her life.

Set-Up (pages 1 – 19): Cassie is close to her colleagues (or as close as she’s willing to get to anyone), and she considers her firefighting team from Station Eleven to be her “family.” Cassie’s mother abandoned her and left her father for another man on Cassie’s sixteenth birthday, which is something Cassie has never been able to forgive or forget, despite her mother’s attempts at making amends. Although her dad managed to move on after the divorce and even remarried later, Cassie never resolved those feelings of loss. She just shut people out. To compound the grief she’s always associated with her sixteenth birthday is yet another bad memory from that same day, this one involving an extremely negative encounter with a high school classmate she’d had a crush on as a teen: Heath Thompson.

As readers, we don’t yet know the details of their relationship or what exactly happened that night, but we don’t need them to understand that he violated her in a profound way. Cassie’s horror at seeing him at her awards banquet is palpable. Even worse, Heath is now a city councilman and—surprise!—he’s the one who’ll be personally giving her that big valor award. One of Cassie’s natural gifts is her sense of clear-headedness and calm in the face of an emergency. However, when Heath smugly reaches over and cups her backside (out of view of the audience, of course), Cassie loses her cool completely and knocks the jerk unconscious with her brand new and very heavy wood-and-metal plaque. The audience catches that.

Catalyst (pages 20 – 26): A double whammy hits hard. There are not only serious professional repercussions for pummeling Heath on the head, however deservedly, but Cassie’s mother Diana calls out of the blue with a request that Cassie considers all but insane. Diana claims that, due to vision problems she’s been having, she needs her daughter’s help. She pleads with Cassie to move from Texas to Massachusetts to live with her “for a year at the most.” Cassie declines. Firmly.

Debate (pages 26 – 44): Only… the situation at hand gives her very few options. Cassie’s boss—a tough female captain—has to break the news that, unless Cassie publicly apologizes to Heath, she’ll be fired. She absolutely refuses. The captain is sympathetic, but there are some rules that can’t be bent. Cassie, in a last-ditch effort to find a solution, asks whether it might be possible to get a firefighting position near Boston instead, which is about the only reason she’d agree to go anywhere near her estranged mom. Turns out, that idea might just work. The captain helps her find a job, and she gives Cassie a slew of advice that, while it’s intended to help her navigate her role as the only female at this new firehouse, also serves to reinforce her sense of isolation and loneliness. “Just be a machine,” says the captain. “A machine that eats fire.”

Break into Two (pages 46 – 66): Cassie drives from her Austin, TX home north to her mother’s suburb of Rockport, MA and literally enters a new, upside-down world. It’s a huge change for her: Life with a mom she barely knows, plus a new set of firefighters who are essentially hostile to having a woman in their house. Her motivation for this change is being driven by what she thinks will solve the problem, not what she genuinely needs. Her only plan is to keep her distance emotionally from everyone.

B Story (pages 69 – 71): Then the rookie enters the scene—or the firehouse, as it were—and completely throws off all of her grand plans of detachment. She feels an immediate, unwelcome, and totally unmistakable pull of attraction toward him. For years and years she’s been immune to this sensation. That’s no longer the case.

Fun and Games (pages 66 – 161): There’s the new firehouse and its challenges, such as the ritualistic hazing by her teammates and the obstacles thrown at her by being part of a new system. There’s her mom’s desire for a closer relationship, and her mom’s friends, who want to include Cassie in their activities. And then there’s the rookie—real name: Owen—and their burgeoning friendship, which morphs into a mutual fondness… with the possibility for more.

Midpoint (pages 159 – 161): False victory. Owen/the rookie asks for her assistance in attending his family’s big party. He needs to bring a “girlfriend” to deflect attention from the fact that he’d broken up with his ex several months back but didn’t tell his parents. Cassie agrees to help him on the condition that their boss and fellow firefighters never find out about this. She says even if they aren’t dating, rumors would fly and it would be detrimental to her career. He agrees but, of course, the boss unexpectedly shows up and they have to hide in a closet to avoid him. Sexual tension runs high. But here comes a big revelation: Not only hasn’t Cassie dated anyone, she’s never even been kissed. The rookie changes that. It’s a memorable and exhilarating “first kiss” moment.

Bad Guys Close In (pages 162 – 210): Cassie’s attraction to the rookie, although a very positive experience, reignites extremely negative memories of Heath Thompson and his sexual attack of her when they were teens. There are lots of new worries and dangerous problems, too, coming at her from every possible direction.

At the firehouse, someone purposely vandalizes Cassie’s locker with the word “Slut,” slashes her car tires, throws a brick in her mom’s front window, and makes it clear that she’s not wanted there. The captain is angry with her for doing something she thought was good—getting grant money to buy things like cyanide poisoning antidote kits, which fire engines should carry in case of emergencies—and basically not doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”

There are budget cuts coming from the city, meaning that either she or the rookie will have to go. Although Cassie is much more capable as a firefighter, Owen is a male, from a family of firefighters (including his dad), and very well liked by everybody. She has to prove herself at every turn on the job, but she doubts that will be enough.

And then there’s her mother. When Diana has a seizure, Cassie learns that her mom’s “eye problem” is actually caused by a tumor, and it’s terminal. The doctors have given Diana less than a year to live.

All Is Lost (pages 211 – 214): Whiff of death. More than a “whiff,” in fact. At her mother’s hospital bed, Cassie silently begs/prays that her mother won’t leave her (again).

Dark Night of the Soul (pages 214 – 217): Once she fully understands what little time she and Diana have left together, Cassie has an epiphany about her relationship with her mother. She finally hears what Diana has been saying all along—about her life choices, about the man she’d loved, about the reasons she’d left when she did, etc.—and Cassie starts to see her mother’s story in a new light. She not only forgives her mom, she wants to be forgiven by her.

Break into Three (pages 218 – 234): Cassie takes Diana home from the hospital and, for the first time since she was a teen, they begin to work on having a true mother-daughter relationship. Diana is determined to try to beat the cancer. Meanwhile, Cassie attempts to open herself up to emotion again. To figure out how to face the rest of her life. To savor whatever time she has left with her mom. And to deal with her feelings for Owen. She’s still traumatized by the rape when she was sixteen, but she also realizes that Owen isn’t anything like Heath.

The rookie has his own ghosts from the past. He admits he doesn’t want to be a firefighter—he prefers to cook and bake—and that Cassie won’t have to leave the firehouse because he’s planning to quit. Furthermore, Owen confesses that he loves her. (Cue more kissing!)

Finale (pages 235 – 301): Cassie and the rookie are now a couple. She realizes the great extent to which love can heal and finally feels she deserves to be happy—or, at least, to have “the power to refuse to let the world’s monsters ruin everything.” She’s slowly but surely conquering her flaws and her fears.

All problems in her life are not solved, however. In dealing with a bad local fire and some reckless decisions made on the part of one of her older colleagues, Cassie is left to face the consequences of the older man’s lies and his dangerous actions. In the midst of this, Owen is hurt. She is fortunately able to save Owen’s life (thanks to one of the cyanide poisoning antidote kits she’d gotten for the station), but he still ends up in the hospital. Their boss, the other firefighters, and even Owen’s family blame Cassie solely for his being there. It takes a heroic effort on Cassie’s part to untangle the reason behind these problems, but she does. When the truth comes to light, she succeeds in winning the respect of her team, as well as admiration from the rookie’s family.

Final Image (pages 303 – 310): In a sum-it-all-up style of an Epilogue, Cassie and Owen get married. Her friends from Texas come to the wedding. She fully forgives Diana, who lives longer than expected (although not as long as Cassie would have liked), and she even forgives the older colleague who tried to sabotage her at the firehouse and whose actions landed Owen in the hospital. Her husband, who’s still affectionately known as “the rookie,” has opened up a little restaurant, while Cassie continues to work as a firefighter. They now have two children. Cassie’s best revenge is having such a fantastic life that she has (mostly) forgotten Heath Thompson, who did finally go to jail, although it was for tax fraud rather than sexual assault. Above all, Cassie is no longer lonely. She’s found the courage to love and be loved.

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