Summary: Reminiscent of Year of Wonders, a captivating debut novel of fireworks, fortune, and a young woman's redemption It is 1752 and seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel arrives in London pregnant with an unwanted child. Lost and frightened, she finds herself at the home of Mr. J. Blacklock, a brooding fireworks maker who hires Agnes as an apprentice. As she learns to make rockets, portfires, and fiery rain, she slowly gains his trust and joins his quest to make the most spectacular fireworks the world has ever seen.
Jane Borodale offers a masterful portrayal of a relationship as mysterious and tempestuous as any the Brontës conceived. Her portrait of 1750s London is unforgettable, from the grimy streets to the inner workings of a household where little is as it seems. Through it all, the clock is ticking, for Agnes's secret will not stay secret forever.
Deeply atmospheric and intimately told from Agnes's perspective, The Book of Fires will appeal to readers of Geraldine Brooks, Sarah Waters, Sheri Holman, and Michel Faber. -- Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
When I first heard about THE BOOK OF FIRES by Jane Borodale, my interest was definitely sparked. The book was being touted as "reminiscent of YEAR OF WONDERS, a captivating debut novel of fireworks, fortune, and a young woman's redemption." I absolutely adored YEAR OF WONDERS so it's pretty safe to say that I was expecting to be really "wowed" with this book. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to YEAR OF WONDERS for me; however, I still really enjoyed this novel.
I have to admit that it took me awhile to become attached to the character of seventeen year-old Agnes. The story begins when Agnes is living in the English country with her poor and hungry family. She finds herself pregnant with an unwanted child and decides to escape to London to save her family from her troubles. It's not that my heart didn't go out to Agnes for her situation. I just think I was having a hard time getting used to the author's descriptive writing style. The first section of the book was filled with very detailed descriptions of the countryside, and I found myself wanting more character development of Agnes.
Having said that, once Agnes arrived in London, I really began to enjoy this story. Either I had become used to the author's writing style by then, or the action and dialogue made the book's pace much more to my liking. I appreciated seeing Agnes apprentice under Blacklock and learn the art of making fireworks; and I really enjoyed the historical aspect of the story.
I've read a few reviews that said the reader had problems with Agnes and some of her actions -- that they never really thought she was all that believable. I guess I missed out on that! When Agnes arrived in London, she decided to hide her pregnancy. Even though she was getting bigger each month, it appeared that no one in the household realized that she was pregnant (even though people in the stores kept looking at her stomach.) That part of the story didn't bother me at all -- maybe because I had a co-worker who didn't realize her daughter was pregnant until a few days before she delivered (yes, truth can be stranger than fiction.) I actually just felt bad for Agnes because she was so naive and obviously in way over her head.
Agnes was first in denial of the pregnancy; and then once she realized she had to "do something," she tried to lure a man into marrying her. When that didn't work, she eventually tried to abort the baby at a very late stage. I don't think the seventeen year-old Agnes was very worldly to say the least, and I felt as if her actions were possible for a desperate teenager. Although I was definitely frustrated by some of her actions (and even thought she was stupid at times), I thought Agnes did the best she could. She was just a young girl who had left everything she had ever known -- her home and family -- because she felt as if she had no choice. My heart just went out to Agnes because she was so alone and had to keep so many secrets.
I thought this book just kept getting better and better the more I read. I thought Agnes' and Blacklock's relationship was extremely interesting on many different levels. I think Blacklock appreciated Agnes because she had "nimble fingers" and was a quick study on the making of fireworks; however, I also think there was an connection between them because they both were lonely and desperate. I also really enjoyed the ending of the book. There were a few surprises thrown in, and I thought by the end of the story that Agnes had actually grown up and found her way (even if she had a little help.)
THE BOOK OF FIRES is Ms. Borodale's first novel, and I think it's a very impressive start. I am definitely looking forward to her future books because I do think she has a talent for weaving an interesting story. I also thought she did a great job with the historical elements of the story. If you'd like to learn more about Ms. Borodale, you can read this interview. In addition, you might want to check out her essay on the inspiration behind this novel.
THE BOOK OF FIRES is filled with all of the elements that would make it a terrific book club selection. There is an interesting storyline, intriguing characters, and enough ethical dilemmas to discuss. I have a feeling that there will be a some controversy surrounding the character of Agnes (as well as many of her actions); and anytime there is disagreement about a character, I find that it makes for a terrific meeting! There is a reading guide available which delves more deeply into topics including the book's symbolism, characters' actions, secrets, guilt, redemption, and ethics/morals. I guarantee that there won't be a shortage of things to talk about.
I almost think it was unfair for THE BOOK OF FIRES to be compared to YEAR OF WONDERS because it set the reader's expectations so high. THE BOOK OF FIRES was an interesting novel in its own right, and I definitely recommend it to lovers of historical fiction. I know if I had gone into the book just expecting a good story, I would have really appreciated the novel rather than feeling a little let down.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this novel.
And now for the giveaway... the publisher has graciously agreed to giveaway two copies of THE BOOK OF FIRES. To enter, just leave a comment with a valid email address. The contest will be open until February 9th at 11:59 p.m ET, and I will notify the winners the following day. Giveaway is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only -- no p.o. boxes please! Good luck!