After the Fire
This is a difficult book to grade because while After the Fire definitely showcases everything consistently good about Kathryn Shay’s work, it also highlights the things that repeatedly make her a frustrating read for me. An excellent writer with strong command of plot, character development, and a skill for portraying real, multidimensional relationships, Shay often trips herself up by trying to do too much. Although this is a compelling novel about family, love, and life, it regrettably also has a melodramatic, soap opera feel.
Readers familiar with Shay’s work know that she began her writing career with a very successful group of series romances about the members of an upstate New York fire department. Now writing more mainstream fiction, in After the Fire she returns to the plot lines that originally gained her so many fans – myself included.
The story revolves around the lives of three close-knit sibling firefighters in a New York suburb about an hour north of New York City. Mitch Malvaso, the oldest of the clan, is a captain in the department and, despite his own troubled marriage and rebellious children, the de facto patriarch of the extended Malvaso family. Middle sister Jenny is a tough, capable firefighter and an utter failure at romantic relationships. Playboy Zach basically threw away his marriage and a relationship with his sons in order to party.
When the book opens, all three Malvasos are on the scene of a roaring fire in a warehouse that injures all of them and nearly claims the life of one sibling. Shaken by the experience, together they vow that after the fire, they won’t take their time for granted anymore and each vows to better their lives.
Promises made in the heat of tragedy are easier made than kept, as the three discover as they set out to change their lives. Mitch wants to work harder at his failing marriage and to reconnect with his troubled teenage children, but he’s struck unexpectedly by a strong (and unwanted) connection to Megan Hale, a new police detective in town. Jenny wants a baby, and she wants her best friend, fellow firefighter Grady O’Connor, to be the “donor,” but Grady wants more than that – he wants to be the baby’s father, too. And Zach wants to atone for his past actions, but his ex-wife has moved on and created a new life for herself in the two years since their divorce. He struggles to come to terms with his wife’s mistrust and his children’s wariness.
There is so much going on in After the Fire that it would take several reviews to accurately encapsulate everything that occurs. I’ll focus on the two things that really stood out for me and that illustrate what is great, as well as what is less successful about the book: The relationships between Mitch and Megan and Jenny and Grady.
First, the good news. The characters are terrific – without exception they are well-drawn, imperfect, believable, and empathetic. They don’t always do the right thing (Zach is a good example), but they try to be good, and useful, and they stand for what is right and decent in the world.
Mitch in particular is a terrific character, and Megan Hale is a great match for him. Smart, funny, dedicated, and above all, honorable, these two are kindred spirits from the beginning. Their uneasy friendship, blossoming into seemingly doomed love is compelling and sometimes sad since Shay rarely takes the easy way out (despite some rather obvious plot contrivances). Things are as hard for this non-couple as they can possibly be, yet you root for them anyway because they deserve to be happy and they truly deserve each other. Mitch’s relationships with his two children – full of love, confusion, and regret – are so convincingly depicted that I had tears in my eyes during many of those family scenes.
I had a similar reaction to Jenny and Grady as they struggled with Jenny’s desire for a child, and what it might mean to their close friendship of many years. Their changing feelings for each other, and their fear of losing the non-romantic emotional bedrock they represent for each other is tangible and understandable. I ached with them as they made their separate and collective decisions, not always in the most mature ways possible. Good people don’t always do likable things and I empathized with them. I must say though, I’ve never had a friendship with a man quite as close as the one shown between Jenny and Grady.
Now, the bad news. Why, oh why does almost every character in a Shay novel have to have an overly tragic back-story? Isn’t it enough that Megan’s policeman father was killed in the line of duty? Why does she have to have a husband killed that way too? I suppose it could happen, but it smacks of too much pathos. The same is true of Jenny’s two failed marriages (though I know statistics of firefighters and cop marriages are woeful and might make a case for this one), and Grady’s unrealistically horrible and traumatic experiences with former mates. It’s overkill. Someone doesn’t have to have a melodramatically scarring experience (or two, or three) in their lives to be afraid or wary of a relationship. Sometimes just watching a bad relationship from the sidelines is more than enough.
Shay has made this heavy-handed mistake in other books that I’ve read, and I really wish someone could make her understand that it’s too much of a good thing. Emotional back-story is critical to good characterization, yes. Overly emotional melodrama supporting every character in a busy cast is too much. It lends a soap opera feel that detracts from an otherwise excellently plotted and characterized novel. I despair of it, because I like this writer’s work a lot, but I’m repeatedly frustrated by the traumas she is determined to visit on all of her characters.
If you’ve enjoyed Shay’s work before, then After the Fire will not disappoint you since it showcases the storyteller’s skills she has in spades. If you’ve been frustrated by Shay in the past, then it will probably happen again, because the problems persist. Overall though, for me the positives outweighed the negatives, and I consider After the Fire one of the more compelling books I’ve read this year.