Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for giving me the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
You know that feeling when you get shamed for never having read a certain author’s work? Someone asks you if you read a book and you say no. The person gasps, there is a lot of eyebrow rising followed by a series of “are you serious?” and “you of all people have not read it?” You feel yourself blush, mumble excuses and annoyingly reply that you will add it to your TBR. Well this was my life whenever someone asked me if I read “Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo and I said no.
So you can imagine my excitement when I got Elizabeth’s newest book thanks to the HCC Frenzy. I was ready to see what all the fuss was about. All it took was reading the very first page for me to realize I deserved all the shame for never reading her previous book. I instantly knew that this book was going to be special. Spoiler alert: special does not even come close to describing this book. It was phenomenal.
“Trust okay? Trust. Yourself, mainly, but the world, too. There is magic working in your favor” – Elizabeth Acevedo
Emoni Santiago is a high school senior being cared for by her Abuela. While she goes through the flows of high school life, she also has the added responsibilities of being a teenage mother. She works part time at a burger joint, struggles to keep up with her schoolwork, and tries to push away the confusing feelings she has about the new boy at school, Malachi. Her priority is her Baby Girl, Emma. Her passion is the magic she creates in the kitchen. When Emoni takes a culinary arts class at school, it becomes impossible to hide the talent she has and the heights she can raise to one day. When her culinary teacher informs her that there will be a class trip to Spain where she will be able to cook alongside chefs, Emoni cannot deny how much she wants this experience for herself. However, she also cannot deny the financial stress and the responsibility she has towards Emma. What happens when your talent is bursting out of you, ready to break free but there are many obstacles in your path?
Culture and Flavor
For me, this book is a vibrant tapestry of culture and a love note to food lovers around the world. The way the author mixes culture, values, family and food together really made me feel like I was standing right there in the kitchen by Emoni and Abuela as they chatted about life while chopping up vegetables and sprinkling spices onto their dishes. It felt like home.
Emoni is such a vibrant character who is part Puerto Rican and part black. The dynamic between her and Abuela is so endearing and the fierce love they have for Emma is heart warming. Is here anything more powerful than the love for a daughter and granddaughter? Combined, it has the power to light up a whole city. That is how it felt while reading the scenes between Emoni, Abuela and Emma.
I absolutely love how readers are given the sense of just how good Emoni is with cooking. How she can find that hidden ingredient by tasting it. How her gut tells her to add a certain ingredient that nobody else would think of for that particular dish. You especially get the sense of her talent by the emotions her food evokes from those who taste it. Personally, my favorite parts were when Emoni was in the kitchen, thinking to herself as she was in her creative space and how liberated it made her feel. At times it was like I could almost taste the dishes Emoni was making and I absolutely loved the little recipes included in the book.
Hardships and Responsibilities:
“If there was one thing I learned once my belly started showing is that you can’t control how people look at you, but you can control how far back you pull your shoulders and how high you lift your chin” – Elizabeth Acevedo
The book really explored what it is like to walk in the shoes of a teenage mother who is also a girl of color. It felt like I was walking alongside her as she experienced the stereotypes that she had to live with and the assumptions people had of her. Boys thought she was a certain way because she got pregnant, certain elderly white woman threw their own stereotypes her way and others just gave her pitiful looks. She even had to deal with people from her own community and their judgements. It is no wonder that Emoni developed trust issues, especially towards boys or anyone who offered her an opportunity. In many ways, she had to learn to trust herself, which can be just as hard.
The secondary characters were incredibly developed and gave a sense of how supportive friends can be that added cinnamon dust on your sweet dish (wow, I’m talking like Emoni now). The love story was very well written and seemed important to her progression throughout the novel. Emoni’s backstory with her family is also explored, and I think that gives an even clearer picture of where her trust issues stem from even before her pregnancy. Each character is flawed in one way or another or just hungry for a new chapter in their life. A special shout out to Emoni’s best friend in the novel. That friendship made me smile. How wonderful is it reading about friendships that build you up rather than tear you down?
I’m not exaggerating when I say this was a magical read. What made it magical was the author’s writing. The chapters were so short that I kept telling myself I’ll read just one more and before I knew it I had reached the end. To be honest, I was not ready to say goodbye to this rich cast of characters or the food. I was left hungry, literally, for more.
I am that person who will always be talking about how we need diversity in books and “With the Fire on High” is a perfect example of the richness that comes with diversity and how much we can all learn from these books. I love that we got to see the world through Emoni’s perspective both inside and outside of the kitchen.
Happy reading bookworms!