After the Fire takes a dysfunctional family, subjects it to heavy stress, and focuses on the ways various family members can feel even more angst. Kathryn Shay is not known for her light-hearted comedies, but this may be her most somber book yet.
Mitch Malvaso, his sister Jenny, and brother Zach are all members of the Hidden Cove Fire Department in northern New York state. The three barely survive a large warehouse fire when the building’s ceiling collapses. Ten firefighters die. Shaken, the three Malvaso siblings each resolve to make changes in their lives.
For years Mitch has been trapped in an unhappy marriage; his children’s personal and academic lives are suffering. He knows that changes need to be made. As the oldest of five children, Mitch became the surrogate head of his family after their father died when they were still young. Even though they’re all grown now, he still feels a sense of responsibility for his siblings.
Jenny decides she wants a baby. She has been living in a side-by-side duplex with her best friend Grady O’Connor, another firefighter. Both have been through disastrous marriages and divorces, and their close relationship was probably a strong factor. Jenny wants Grady to father her child. She suggests artificial insemination, but that idea doesn’t last long.
Zach’s wife divorced him because of his repeated infidelities. Moreover, his problem with anger management affected their two children. He regrets his actions and now wants to patch up their relationship and be a better father to his children. He learns, however, that his ex-wife has a boyfriend. Is it too late for him?
Megan Hale, formerly of the New York Police Department, has recently become a detective with the Hidden Cove police. Megan owns property on the cove and hopes to establish a camp for the children of slain police and firefighters. She and Mitch begin to work together towards this goal, and their professional relationship will grow into something closer.
After the Fire has three parallel plot lines as the various members of the Malvaso clan try to redirect their lives. The thread featuring Mitch and Megan is the predominant one, but the other two are nearly as major. There’s an overriding sober tone to the story as the various characters try to straighten out their lives.
And there’s a lot to straighten out. The Malvaso family has forgotten to put the fun in dysfunctional. Not only are they messed up, they’re also generally unhappy. There were many times I wanted to yell at one character or another, “This is an unhealthy relationship. Get some professional help!”
Most of the characters are likeable – someone readers can root for. Mitch’s wife Cynthia, however, is one of those one-dimensional characters who has scarcely a single redeeming quality – even her children can’t stand her. One of the weaknesses of the plot is why Mitch married this witch to begin with and has taken this long to contemplate separation. And even in the period covered by the story he’s in no rush to fix things. Perhaps he’s so busy overseeing the messed-up lives of his siblings that he can’t see his own children are just as at risk.
Much of the story suffers from slow pacing which enhances the sense of gloom. Too much of the book is a detailed account of how unhappy these people are. It’s only towards the end that the pace picks up and things start happening. When the story ended, my strongest reaction was a sense of relief that it was finally over. Kathryn Shay is a talented writer, and I’ve enjoyed her books in the past. No matter how well written After the Fire is, however, it’s not a romance I can recommend. In fact, it’s something of a misnomer to call this a romance. The romances in this book more closely resemble desperation – not unlike a drowning victim grabbing onto any log floating past.
This may not be the end of the troubles of the Malvaso family. Not all the threads are neatly tied by the end of the book leading to possibilities in a sequel. (The author’s website indicates it’s the first in a trilogy.) It would be nice if in the next book the author introduces a character who comes from a well-adjusted, supportive family and has a sense of humor.