It’s 1871 and Emmeline Carter is poised to take Chicago’s high society by storm. Between her father’s sudden rise to wealth, and her recent engagement to Chicago’s most eligible bachelor, Emmeline has it all. But she can’t stop thinking about the life she left behind, including her childhood sweetheart, Anders Magnuson. Fiona Byrne, Emmeline’s childhood best friend, is delighted by her friend’s sudden rise to prominence, especially since it means Fiona is free to pursue Anders herself. But when Emmeline risks everything for one final fling with Anders, Fiona feels completely betrayed.
As the summer turns to fall, the city is at a tipping point: friendships are tested, hearts are broken, and the tiniest spark might set everything ablaze. Sweeping, soapy, and romantic, this is a story about an epic love triangle—one that will literally set the city ablaze, and change the lives of three childhood friends forever.
Warnings: attempted sexual assault, gun violence, domestic violence
A love triange set against the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, When We Caught Fire overdoes the passion and heads straight into angst. Going into the book, I was prepared for high society politics, class struggle or something like that, with three friends stuck in between, but this was more a case of teenage angst raging hotter than the fire. Barely into a quarter of the book, I was prepared to DNF it, but I somehow carried on till the end, mostly by skimming the long and at times superfluous descriptions.
The plot of this book revolves around Emmeline (as the the first page itself declares) and her selfishness. For two years, she and her childhood best friend have groomed themselves into a young elite woman and her maid, respectively, and the foremer has already snagged a rich scion for a fiance. Now, on the last week before her wedding, she starts to remember her other childhood best friend and first love, Anders, and sends Fiona (who has been nursing a crush on him all this time) to rekindle contact. As expected, she falls for him again and is prepared to elope with him, even if he hasn’t been very enthusiastic or anything about it. Their plans fail when she has cold feet to her cold feet at the last moment, and jealousy leads to a devastating fire.
Firstly, the fact that I did not like or care about the characters was a big sign that I would not like the book. Emmeline is selfish, flighty and naive – even though she comes from a poor background, she has no sense of money or pragmatism. She foolishly plans her elopement as if it was a lavish adventure, not realizing it is a matter of life and death for Anders. The flimsy reasons in the plot for these characters to even go forth with this plan had me rolling my eyes throughout like half the book. The only remotely likeable character was Fiona, and probably Mr Carter who redeems himself somewhat towards the end. Emmy, meanwhile, is the cause of much grief in the plot, and I couldn’t forgive her, even accounting for her relatively young age of 18. The domestic abuse angle felt placed just to have us empathize with her character or something, and Georgie felt like wasted potential. The plot overall lacked any excitement and with so much angst and romance, I was way more invested in the actual fire parts. Those parts only made this feel like a historical novel, and it seemed well researched on that front. As for the rest of it, it is just a hormonal mess.
In short, a fiery disappointment.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Harper Teen, via Edelweiss.