I think I needed a break from books almost guaranteed to hurt me (in a good way). So part of me is relieved that the next installment of the Gentleman Bastard series isn't due to come out until next year, at least giving me some time to recover. In the meantime, I returned to my actual reading list and settled on reading another of the books that I picked up on a whim from a charity shop. Born in Fire sounded like just the sort of romantic mush that would allow me to relax a little.
Born in Fire follows Maggie Concannon, a glass blower living out in County Clare. She is making a modest living by selling her work when she catches the eye of Rogan Sweeney, the owner of several art galleries who is interested in promoting home-grown Irish artists. While the idea of needing an agent to sell her work needles at Maggie, she is more tempted by the potential for enough money to set up a home for her mother and, in the process, freeing her younger sister from their parent's anger and bitterness. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes more personal as Rogan and Maggie's personalities clash in a big way.
This is a curious book to review. In many ways, I would consider it well written and containing some surprising depth. In other ways, it jabs at me with little things that just don't mesh right. So instead of discussing pros and cons as has been my wont more recently, I'll pick elements and take them apart.
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is the setting, if only because of what I feared it could well have ended up. When I read the first couple of chapters, I got a horrible sinking feeling that this would end up being a horribly quaint, sanitised version of Ireland, very much the American view of what Ireland is. I am aware that parts of Ireland are very quaint and romantic, but there is always a part of me that sort of braces itself when I see depictions that brush away the darker aspects of the country. Maybe it's having grown up in Britain, but it always strikes me as intensely naive and at times intentionally ignorant when a whole bloody history is conveniently forgotten in favour of some harmless national stereotypes. But, thankfully, the actual setting is a lot more nuanced than I had feared. Indeed, central to Maggie's character arc is her relationship with her mother, which is unavoidably marked by Ireland's issues in regards to pregnancy outside of wedlock, given its large Catholic population. While it has moments where the depiction is squarely in the quaint, I can't find it in me to begrudge the author these moments, as the tone is overall pretty balanced and it isn't really meant to be a terribly grim and gritty book.
The other thing I'd like to focus on is the characters and their relationships. Most obvious to look at would be the romance between Rogan and Maggie, seeing as it is one of the book's selling points. It's okay, but really nothing that stands out amongst many other romantic novels. A part of the reason that I'm so lukewarm to it might be that there isn't really any tension around them getting together. Their main issue is instead commitment and exclusivity, which could have been really interesting. That is if it weren't juxtaposed with the far more absorbing family drama. Following the death of Maggie's father, she and her sister Brianna have to deal with taking care of their mother, a bitter and twisted hag of a woman who makes no secret of the fact that she believes her late husband and children to be the causes of all of her unhappiness. Maggie in particular is loathed for being the child conceived out of wedlock, and the deep personal issues that this and her parents' obviously deeply unhappy marriage cause is really well developed. Additionally, I do have a bit of an issue with the ending of their romance.
I found that Maggie's complete turnaround from swearing off marriage entirely to accepting Rogan's marriage proposal a little weird. While I am a firm supporter of marriage (being currently engaged, it would be a tad strange not to be), I am also well aware that it isn't everyone's cup of tea. I have known people for whom it has turned out very badly, and for whom it is an archaic formality that they would rather forego. For Maggie, it made complete sense for her to believe that she was not suited for marriage considering the example that she grew up knowing. As a result, I find it more than a little in bad taste for Rogan to listen to her reasons for not wanting to get married and then continue to emotionally manipulate her into accepting his proposal anyway. It might not make the picture-perfect romance story ending, but a big part of me would have preferred if she stood her ground and tried to make the relationship work without marriage as an end goal.
All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. If you're looking for a romance primarily, I'd look elsewhere as it's average at best. If you're more interested in a complex family drama, then this is a pretty good place to look. Also, if you're looking for a depiction of Ireland that isn't the Americanised vision of shamrocks and leprechauns, then this is a nice tone that has hints of the country's darker side without it sliding hopelessly into a story about the troubles. 3.5/5
Next review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan