→With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
| ★★★★★ | released earlier 2019 |
With the Fire on High is all over the place on purpose — we get brief chapters that are simply glimpses into Emoni’s character, and then get to continue on with the journey simply knowing more about her. This has the impact, of course, that it’s not a very plot-driven book. But for a story this character-driven, it is a brilliant choice.
Emoni Santiago is a senior in high school, considering the rest of her future with limited options: after all, she is the single mother to a child she had three years previous with her ex-boyfriend. But with the help of her grandmother, her best friend, a new boy at school, and a new cooking class, she might have further places to go.
Emoni, as a heroine, is instantly compelling: strong, brave, but also at times vulnerable. She is unsure of her readiness to participate in either her dreams or in emotional openness, but also full of ambition. Some of the arc of this book comes in her learning to lean into her vulnerabilities, and risk things for her future happiness.
Emoni’s passion for cooking is so incredibly well-written and I genuinely think it should be used as an example of how to write passion. We are so in deep with her love for cooking that we immediately root for her to live her dream; we see her talent and see her potential and see how much she wants it, but we also see the obstacles in her way, and it just makes us want it more for her. I genuinely rooted for Emoni to become a chef on a level I barely feel for like, will-they-won’t-they romantic couples. (Emoni x happiness otp.)
I really liked Malachi, Emoni’s endearing bad-boy-exterior-good-boy-interior love interest. I love that Emoni doesn’t take his shit and keeps her role in the narrative; this romance is not her character arc, but one part of her development into someone more willing to participate in emotional vulnerability. It is so about her. That is rare for female characters. Emoni’s grandmother, father, and best friend each felt like very fully-realized characters as well, and I loved seeing their interactions.
What I loved most about this book is the deep and enduring respect it gives Emoni’s dreams. It’s a book that explores cultural identity, and Afro-Latina identity, responsibility, and motherhood, and the social alienation that comes with teen parenthood.
The thing is, I wrote this whole review and I don’t think I’m saying this right. I don’t think I can properly articulate what makes this book so good. Except for this: It is a book that is endearingly real but still hopeful, and for that, it will stay with me for a long, long time.