Review: Things You Save in a Fire

Things You Save in a Fire Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

So I've been sitting on this review for a few days after finishing this book, trying to frame my thoughts a bit. There are things I really enjoyed about Things You Save in a Fire but there are things that had me rather upset. I greatly enjoyed Center's last novel How to Walk Away and note that over the past decade she's made a career of writing novels about women on the brink of disaster, over the edge of disaster, recovering from disaster. She writes books that brim with hope and humor. In the present case, we follow Cassie Hanwell, a female fire fighter who has built a fortress around herself with her prowess as a firefighter, athlete, and all around genuine hero(ine). Cassie has, again and again, put her life on the line to save those in need. But so much of the strength she has built has been a reaction to two grievous life injuries she sustained when she was sixteen years old. And after an event that was supposed to be a celebration of her bravery turns into a major PTSD trigger she finds herself moving across the country to save her career and take care of a mother from whom she's been estranged for more than a decade. The triggering event, along with having to deal with her ailing mother, seems to unleash all kinds of emotions that Cassie doesn't want to deal with. And herein lies one of my problems with the structure of the trauma portion of this narrative. I'm going to discuss the issue below, under a spoiler tag.

I heartily enjoyed the firefighter portions of the book, which I know that Center put a huge amount of research into in order to have them ring with authenticity. And they do. Her Austin and Lillian stations were interesting in their huge contrasts and the technical aspects of firefighting were quite fascinating. The differing compositions of her crew members, and the varying degrees in which sexism is an issue in the career, were also interesting. And I enjoyed the character of Owen Callaghan, the rookie firefighter who comes from a long line of firefighters and who is, just like other male protagonists Center has written in the past, nursing his own guilt and pain. While one could say some aspects of Center's stories are formulaic within her own works, it's a formula that works because it mirrors real life- we all have our hurts, guilts, and traumas to overcome in order to connect with our fellow humans.

While I was less on board with this novel than her last, Center can write engagingly and I'm sure the novel is going to be a popular one.

Spoilers Below. No, Really. Spoilers


CW: sexual assault, untreated PTSD

Cassie, as written, has a dissociative way of processing physical closeness to others. She tolerates it for work but as no ability to tolerate that closeness on a personal level. Unless... it's the cute Irish rookie in her new fire station. Mind you, as an assault survivor myself, I can get the complex feelings of attraction and fear that go with moving forward in life "after." But the way Cassie's character arc is written makes it seem like recovering from sexual assault is just about waiting long enough for the right guy to come along, which is... offensive. First, once you surmise these revelations about the character, you look back at the first chapter, in which she wonders if Hernandez is right about his suggestions that she needs to get laid, and think it's ridiculous that she would even contemplate such a thing! How!? The woman has never even been kissed, for gosh sakes! Thereafter, I found the passages with her dealing with Owen practicing on her, touching all over her, when she realizes her profound attraction to him, to be immensely frustrating to read. She's described as uneasy, but in a real world this might likely result in out and out panic. He hooks her up to an EKG and doesn't even notice anything stress related? Really? Sure, he eventually realizes that something is wrong many chapters later, but how fast is that fix as we careen toward the dramatic events at the end? As an assault survivor, her dissociative way of processing, which she self-recognizes as viewing his physical contact with her as just work-related, becomes imperiled once she steps over that work-related boundary into a "friendship." Because friendship involves trust and trust involves vulnerability and vulnerability is not something Cassie deals with well. While she asks Owen about therapy for his issues, at no point do we hear about her having therapy for her issues, nor do we have any indication that her father, distracted by his own pain of his wife's rejection, notices anything about his daughter's physical and emotional suffering, her being bullied at school, her withdrawing from any connections with peers. No adult notices. (I know this stuff really happens but the point is that it sharply deepens the trauma and that increases the difficulty in overcoming the trauma.) 

Frankly, the way this was handled had me even questioning the entire premise of her being a firefighter, sleeping in quarters with a bunch of guys, and wondering whether she would/could ever really sleep in that kind of vulnerable setting. (And yes, I know she believes that firefighters are the good guys. A PTSD brain doesn't so much care about that sort of belief.) In any case, I'm supposed to believe that this strong, stoic assault survivor just meets the right guy and works through her immense barriers to physical intimacy, gets married in short order, has babies, and lives happily ever after, boom!? Naaaaah, chica. No way. Not buying it. Why not have her had past therapy on her Austin Department's insurance? Why not have her female chief in Austin, who just saw her most talented firefighter derail her career insist she must see a therapist after Cassie implies why she did what she did to Heath Thompson? And though Captain Harris helps her get the new job in New England, why doesn't she express concern as to whether going off to a sexist all male department was the right thing for Cassie to do? Why doesn't that female chief ever touch base with her later, and make sure she's okay? The simple addition of a bargain with Captain Harris that she'd help her if she sought therapy would have made this whole thing more believable. I just fail to believe that a captain so proud of her junior officer would leave this unaddressed. There was more work to be done here. Most of all, leading anyone who hasn't been an assault victim to believe that trauma recovery is as simple as finding the right partner is a disservice to assault victims. 

I received a Digital Review Copy and paper copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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