Published by HarperTeen on October 2, 2018
Genres: Historical, Romance, Young Adult
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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.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I went into When We Caught Fire with high hopes– I mean, you all know how much I love YA historical fiction by now, right? Plus, I absolutely devoured Anna Godbersen’s previous two series– The Luxe and Bright Young Things– when I was younger, and I was excited to see how her writing held up for me as an adult. However, I’m sorry to say that this one ended up being a huge disappointment.
We follow our main character, Emmaline, during the week leading up to her wedding to one of Chicago’s most sought-after bachelors. Emmaline and her father have come from nothing and, over the past couple years, have steadily climbed the social ladder. Finally, with the impending wedding, they are becoming part of Chicago’s elite. However, Emmaline decides that, before she marries Freddy, she needs to pay a visit to her old flame, Anders, in her old, poorer neighborhood. Why, you might ask? Because *gasp* she still loves him. After seeing Anders again, Emmaline realizes what she has given up on her rise to the top and decides to run away on her wedding day to once again be with Anders.
Complicating this matter further, however, is Emmaline and Anders’s other best friend, Fiona, who– another shocker– has also always been in love with Anders. Emmaline took Fiona on as her lady’s maid when her father became wealthy and they moved out of the old neighborhood, so there are some shitty power dynamics at play in their friendship from the start, tbh. Fiona is (rightfully) frustrated that Emmaline is pursuing Anders at the last minute like this… because, you know, SHE IS ENGAGED TO SOMEONE ELSE. I honestly felt bad for Fiona throughout this book because she inadvertently got caught up in Emmaline’s web of lies and selfishness.
So, yeah, the romantic plot was a bit of a mess. Plus, it’s been done before. Many times. In a much better way.
Also, can we please do away forever with the trope of two girls who are best friends being in love with the same boy, and that tearing their friendship apart? It’s overdone, it’s misogynistic, and I’m tired.
Without getting spoilery, one of the things that frustrated me most about When We Caught Fire was how, despite all the tension the narrative built (I mean, we’re leading up to the Great Fire of Chicago!), it didn’t deliver on any of that tension. It felt like the author attempted to make me care about these characters and their problems, but I never understood why I was supposed to care. I haven’t read many non-diverse historical fiction books in quite a while, and this is one of the whitest, straightest, most privileged perspectives I’ve ever read. That definitely detracted from my enjoyment of WWCF quite a bit, because I just could not relate to or sympathize with any of these characters’ frivolous problems. They all felt like problems the characters created for themselves, and while I’m here for characters making mistakes in YA– they’re teenagers, after all; I never expect protagonists to be perfect, or even likeable– I’m not here for them when a character’s selfishness ends up causing one of the most destructive fires in American history and said character never has to atone for their mistakes.
Overall, I don’t think this is a *bad* book. The prose itself is good– beautiful, even, at some points. I just think these characters and their privileged problems made for a frustrating reading experience, especially because I don’t feel like Emmaline ever showed any kind of growth or learning due to her mistakes. When We Caught Fire just didn’t deliver on its potential, and ended up severely disappointing me.
Have you read When We Caught Fire? If so, do you share any of my frustrations? On a more positive note, what’s your favorite YA historical fiction you’ve read recently?