Book Review: “With the Fire on High” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Amazon.com: With the Fire on High (9780062662835): Acevedo, Elizabeth: Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2019

Genre: Realistic Fiction (Young Adult)

Format (How I Read It): Hardcover

Goodreads Synopsis:

With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain—and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life—and all the rules everyone expects her to play by—once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.

Book Review

“Where we come from leaves its fingerprints all over us, and if you know how to read the signs of a place, you know a little bit more who someone is.”

Themes: Have trust/faith (in yourself and in the world). Sacrifice & responsibilities. Everything changes. Love of home. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want/need. Motherhood. Family/friendship.

Character Development: I loved seeing Emoni’s growth throughout the story. She’s been through a lot, and she’s mostly learned to just keep her head down and keep going. But throughout the story, she has new experiences that teach her the power of hard work as well as how to trust others and not let herself get in her own way. She also learns to embrace new opportunities and follow her dreams. The supporting characters were great too!

“I’ve had a lot of things to feel ashamed about and I’ve learned most of them are other people’s problems, not mine.”

Plot/Pacing: The structure of this story is made up of short chapters with seamless transitions between each one. This was especially important considering some chapters were flashbacks to before her pregnancy or earlier in her daughter’s life. Sometimes time time jumps like this can be jarring, but the transitions between the current story and the flashbacks were impeccable to the point that each jump made perfect sense. It was very much a character-driven story with a lot of internal conflict. I read some other reviews of this book complaining that “nothing happens.” However, I disagree with this. Due to the major conflicts being internal, it may seem like not a lot is happening in the plot, but everything that happens is incredibly important to the growth of the characters. I found this to be incredibly powerful and not boring at all. (Though if you struggle with character-driven stories, this may not be the book for you.)

Writing Style: So beautiful and poetic. There’s so much figurative language that it often feels like poetry. Of Acevedo’s three novels, this is the only one that’s not written in verse, but it still maintains that poetic quality of her writing, which I love.

“While the oven is preheating, I slowly layer my guilt, my hope, and a hundred dreams.”

“Bingeability”: High. The short chapters and beautiful writing make it hard to put down.

Emotional Investment: High. You can’t help but root for the characters and want them to succeed and achieve their dreams.

Windows and Mirrors: Teen pregnancy/parenthood. Afro-latinx. Study abroad. Cooking. Absent father. Raised by grandmother. Gentrification.

“You have a gift and it’s probably changed the lives of people around you. When you cook, you are giving people a gift. Remember that.”

Overall Thoughts: Overall, I really loved this book. It’s beautifully written and the story and themes are so positive and heart-warming. I loved how it showed that people are complex and that there are different sides to everyone you meet.

Something that I saw come up in other reviews was that people were frustrated with the romance. They felt that the role of the love interest, Malachi, ended up being unnecessary. At first, I was a little disappointed in the end when their relationship seemed to be left unresolved. But then I realized that the romance in this story was never really about romance. The point wasn’t that she found someone to be her soulmate, the purpose of her relationship with Malachi was so that she could experience trust and mutual respect in a relationship and see how she deserves to be treated. For that reason, I found the romance in this story to be necessary and perfectly executed. I think it’s good for adolescent readers to see what a healthy relationship looks like, and that it’s okay to put yourself first even if you care about someone and there isn’t anything wrong or bad with the relationship. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right, and that’s okay!

However, I felt like her daughter in the story could have had a bigger role. Her daughter is old enough to be talking, but she doesn’t really have any dialogue in the story. I get that the story wasn’t about her necessarily, but it just felt a little unrealistic and made her daughter seem like more of a prop than an actual character.

All in all, I found this story to be so uplifting and eye-opening. I loved the cooking and amazing descriptions of food. The trip to Sevilla was fun and immersive and reminded me of my own time in that beautiful city (see my Travel Thursday post HERE). It’s a beautiful story that shows how you can overcome hard things, learn to trust yourself and those around you, and balance your responsibilities with following your dreams. I enjoyed it immensely!

Recommendation: I think this would be a great one for teens to read with a trusted adult. There are some sex scenes (they’re brief and not too detailed, but do describe how she got pregnant), which may be uncomfortable for teens to read/discuss with an adult. However, I think they’re important conversations for teens to have with a trusted adult and this book would be a good way to introduce and facilitate them. While teen pregnancy may not be a common experience in itself, the feelings that led to it in this story are. Emoni just wants to feel wanted, and when a boy makes her feel this way she makes a decision that changes her life forever. That feeling of wanting to be liked and wanted is common (maybe nearly universal?) for teens, and I think it would be a good thing for guardians to be able to acknowledge and talk about with their teens.

I think this book is also a good way to challenge prejudices. For teens who haven’t experienced Emoni’s circumstances, it might be easy to feel judgmental rather than empathetic. Just reading this story will do a lot to increase empathy, but having an adult to discuss it with would help even more with fully absorbing and getting the most out of the story.

I also think this could be used in a high school classroom! At the very least, you could just use excerpts from it to study different kinds of figurative language. In general, I highly recommend this one for teens and adults alike!

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Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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