Saturday, June 29, 2019

Things You Save In A Fire: Let's Talk About Feminist Romance

 I usually only read about a handful of romances each year.  I have to believe that there is a strong possibility that a particular title is going to sustain my feminist world view.  There was a time when I didn't read romances at all.  I believed that a feminist romance was an impossibility.  When I finally tried romance, I noticed that there had been a shift in the way romance authors were writing about women.  Heroines were stronger and had more agency.   Romance publishers had become aware that their audience wanted to see these more independent heroines.   Yet there are other factors that can still make a romance seem inimical to feminist values.  I'm going to discuss one of those factors in this review.

I received a print format ARC of  Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center from St. Martin's Press.  I was eager to read about a courageous and determined 21st century woman who felt called to be a firefighter.  I thought this was an unusual focus for a romance, and I was favorably inclined toward this kind of heroine.  After I finished the book, I was more ambivalent toward the central character than I had expected.  I have decided to write an honest review that explains my ambivalence.


 I know that there are still relatively few woman firefighters.  This is a challenging profession for anyone regardless of gender, but there are particular obstacles placed in the way of women who are trying to succeed as firefighters.   Male firefighters may have preconceptions about women that prevent their acceptance as firefighters.  There may be problems with sexual harassment.  Sometimes the culture of a particular fire station may be the issue.  The Captain is the one who sets the tone.  If there were more female Captains who could mentor new women in their companies,  women would have an easier time in this field.  Cassie Hanwell, Center's protagonist, faces multiple difficulties, but she does have a great deal of inner strength and commitment. She is also remarkably well suited to being a firefighter.

The book's dedication reveals that Center's husband is a firefighter.  There are numerous authentic details in Things You Save From A Fire, but such a source can provide more than information.  He could give Center a window into the lived experience of firefighters that can't be duplicated through research.  This is one of the reasons why this novel felt so genuine to me.

In addition, Cassie's portrayal was very truthful.  This doesn't mean that she has no secrets.   This is a character with some serious hidden baggage, but she also has motivations for concealment that are consistent with her circumstances.   Her decision to hide significant events in her past impacts all her relationships, but being a firefighter had made openness and vulnerability seem outlawed for her.

For the purposes of  the plot, the hero and heroine always need to overcome barriers to their romance.  One of the standard barriers is that one or both partners feel that they need to prove their love.  Most readers were brought up with the idea that proving love requires major sacrifices, and that burden often falls on the woman.  As a feminist, I have always believed that the expectation that women must be the ones to sacrifice for a relationship is both unhealthy and one of the cornerstones of  male domination.   Yet I know that many romance readers consider scenes in which the heroine is the one who has to prove her love through sacrifice very romantic.

When writing a feminist romance, the urge to provide the readers with such a dramatic moment  undermines all the efforts that the author has made up until then to present the protagonist as a feminist.  On the other hand, feminists are also brought up to believe in self-sacrifice.  So a feminist may find herself acting in accordance with romance traditions in an emergency without thinking about it.  People aren't always consistent with their principles--particularly when they are under stress in a crisis situation.  There was a point when I perceived Cassie as having succombed to non-feminist ideals of true love. I thought it was believable that she acted that way, but  I still didn't like it.  I wish that a feminist heroine could promote a better model for relationships.

So  I appreciated  the realism and authenticity of Things You Save In A Fire , but it wasn't as inspiring to me as a feminist as I'd hoped.