Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo


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.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

With the Fire on High was soft, enfolding, light as a dusting of snow upon my forehead, the kind of novel that deadens the harshness of the world and takes the sting from any barb. No wonder, then, that when I turned the last page, the entire world seemed to be oversaturated, too bright, too sharp, swallowing the slice of light and returning me abruptly to darkness.

Acevedo’s second novel centers around 17-year-old Afro-latina Emoni Santiago whose cooking is an instrument of wonder. When people taste Emoni’s food, something deep inside them, once misaligned, shifts back into its proper place. An aspiring chef, she dreams of attending culinary school where she can tend her skills, through practice and diligence, like gardens until they gleamed beneath the sun. But now whenever she sought those fantasies, her 3-year-old daughter’s face would not let them take root. Raised by her grandmother Gloria (whom she calls ‘Buela) after her mother died and her father became a figurehead moving in and out of her life with little permanence, Emoni is determined to be the best mother she could be.

When Emoni’s school announces a new culinary arts class that will culminate in a weeklong apprenticeship in Spain, there was a ricochet of feeling in her, a tentative swell of hope flinching back toward the firmer ground of hopelessness. Emoni is not sure how long she can grasp after the tail end of her dream when so many responsibilities echoed through her mind like the tolling of a bell. But Emoni’s will has always been unwaveringly strong. When she got pregnant and the rumors and the snide remarks came thick as biting flies, Emoni pulled her fearlessness forth, mantling it like cream on every inch of her skin. And she will be just as undaunted in the pursuit of her dreams.

With the Fire on High gripped me from the first couple chapters, and I promptly slipped into the sheathing warmth within it. Acevedo’s voice is resonant, warm, with a pull to it that reminds me of ocean tides. You can tell the author has a strong background in poetry, because the way she utilizes language throughout the novel is masterful. Her prose, so full of lyrical subtlety, searing clarity and an understated assuredness, scintillates. The novel is also separated into sections, each of which is introduced with recipes so rich they linger on the tongue; it was such a lovely addition.

The heart of the book, though, is motherhood. At that, it triumphs magnificently. With the Fire on High is simultaneously ardent and deferent. The graceful sense of sympathy and wonder—and along with it a guarded, hard-won hope—are what make this novel dazzle, even as a haze of helpless despair begins to creep through the pages. More intimate than a diary, Emoni’s narration wavers between funny and devastating. Emoni is strong, unyielding, and there is a stunning vitality to her—her character gleams pearlescent, lit up from within, and it’s a delight to spend time with her.

There is tenderness wounded into this book, ineffable and aching. And there’s despair, thick in the air as winter mists. But through it all, threading them together like jewels on a golden string is a torrent of love. The bottom falls out of Emoni’s dedication for her daughter, proving it an abyss, its depths unknown. She carries her daughter’s heart in her chest, and even when it seems that she has no hope and no solution, she revels in what she has instead—a caring grandmother and a healthy child—and she fights to protect it from the scolding eyes of everyone else.

But the novel doesn’t shy away from the hardships studding Emoni’s path: so many wants and hopes lap at Emoni in a ceaseless tide, but difficult things are thrown her way in clumps and batches, unmanageable and messy. Acevedo’s touch, however, remains light even when hopelessness encroaches on the story, and she surrounds Emoni with an unbending support system, which includes Angelica, Emoni’s queer best friend, Tyrone, Emma’s dad, who is steadily present in his daughter’s life, and Emoni’s ‘Buela with her quiet, unremittent love. Even Emoni’s father, a genuinely kind and generous person, but who is dogged by the loss of his wife ( “the best of him”, Emoni says, “is reserved for strangers,” but over the course of the novel, he learns to extend that benevolence to his own family). Emoni also meets Malachi, a kind and handsome new student, who indefatigably pursues her affections but never crosses her boundaries, and Emoni’s heart thaws for him regardless of how much she tries to put her veneer of remoteness back firmly in place. The romance that blooms between them is not only heart-warming but also realistic.

Overall, With the Fire on High is an immensely warm-hearted treat that boldly gives voice to young women whose stories are often dismissed as cautionary tales. It’s a unique, hearty story that you can easily breeze through over a weekend. Trust me, I binge read most  of this book and it was the best therapy session that I’ve ever had!

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