Monday, August 19, 2019

Book Review: "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo

"The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance."

Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X was easily one of the best books I read last year. This novel-in-verse moved and dazzled me, and it is a book I still think about quite often. Her new book, With the Fire on High, is written in traditional prose, and I am equally blown away by what Acevedo created.

Ever since she got pregnant her freshman year of high school, Emoni Santiago has always put the needs of others before her—her daughter, her abuela, her best friends. She has always worked harder than anyone else, to prove to everyone that she can make her own way and take care of her daughter, and that one wrong choice shouldn't doom your life forever.

The one place where Emoni feels most alive is the kitchen. When she cooks, she is a dynamo, taking recipes and twisting them in her own novel ways, inspiring those who eat her food with inexplicable emotions and memories. If she has any dreams of her own, one is to someday become a chef, although she knows the amount of work may be too much for a young woman raising a child.

"'Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don't know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I'm happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It's the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty. And something special does happen when I'm cooking."

When Emoni gets the chance to take a culinary arts elective during her senior year, she is more excited than she's really ever been where school is concerned. The chef-instructor is impressed by her creativity and her innate sense when cooking, but he wants her to learn how to follow instructions, to understand the fundamentals of cooking, and she isn't sure that learning is better than actually having the chance to just do. But she can't imagine not having the opportunity to cook every day.

In addition to struggling to care for her daughter, make enough money to help her abuela, and study so she might get into a good college, Emoni also must decide how to handle the attentions of Malachi, a handsome, intelligent transfer student. She also has to deal with the challenges of family, particularly the demands of her baby's father and her own father's tendencies to stay away. But through all of that, Emoni focuses on the magic she can create while cooking, magic which links her own heritage and her connection to her mother, who died when she was born.

With the Fire on High is utterly exceptional, moving, compelling, and so entertaining. This is a book about proving yourself, about the obligations of family, the weight a young woman has to carry, and the things which often go unsaid. It's also a book about courage, support, loss, and staying true to your beliefs, even when everyone around you is trying to convince you to do something different.

Acevedo's prose is truly lyrical and she conveys so much emotion and humor and love in this story. Here's a sentence or two which sums up so much: "Can you miss someone you never met? Of course, the answer is yes."

I really love books about food and cooking, and once again, this one made me hungry. There so many things Emoni and her classmates made that I wanted to taste! But still, I consoled myself with the beauty and heart of this amazing book. Acevedo has a talent that needs to be read, and I can't wait to see what comes next for her!

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