I am weak for a historical romance. When I first started reading, the only books I had largely unfettered access to were historical romances. Perhaps this wasn’t the most appropriate reading material for an 11 year old girl, particularly the more sexually graphic “bodice-rippers” that I always seemed to find. Despite the inappropriateness, historical romances hold a special place in my heart and always have. I can pick them up during any reading slump and devour them whole.
Now, this was the first time I’d ever read a historical romance by Susan Wiggs. This particular novel was the third book in a trilogy based around the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. I hadn’t read the previous stories in the trilogy, but based on my experience with these types of novels I largely doubt not reading the others impacts this story in any serious or real way.
With that being said, shall we begin?
The Firebrand follows Lucy Hathaway, a widely disliked “New Woman” or suffragette after the events of the Great Chicago Fire. On the other side of the romance is Rand Higgins, a trusted and important banker. When the pair meet, there is a small kindling of attraction, but Rand is married and the father of an infant. While Lucy is running for her life during the fire, she passes by a burning building where a woman is trapped on the second floor. The woman tosses the child down where Lucy catches her, as the unknown woman perishes in the flames.
Jump forward five years, Lucy is now the adopted mother to a daughter, Maggie, and Rand is a father without a child and a scarred (literally and emotionally) man struggling with the loss of his daughter and wife. The pair (re)-meet when Lucy goes to the bank where Rand works. It is there she realizes Rand’s lost child is now her beloved, adoptive daughter. Romance and chaos ensues from there.
I really like Lucy; typically when I read historical romances the only New Woman type I see just wants to be able to do things around the home without needing permission. In this case, Lucy was genuinely working towards women rights. Her efforts for women’s suffrage are an important part of her character and one I enjoyed. I particularly enjoyed the character development that Lucy goes through; her ideas on free love and equal rights in the beginning seemed to fall more on the side of weakness. However, by the end of the novel, Lucy had grown to see that equal rights means that women should be allowed to choose to stay at home, and that choice doesn’t make a women weak. I loved the growth and overall, I think her character was fully sketched by Wiggs.
Rand, on the other hand I felt was less clearly defined. He was sharply sketched on the edges, but wasn’t quite as colored in as Lucy. Several chapters were from his point of view, but even with that there was little exploration of his personality. You could tell he was a callous man, who took great pride in his appearance, and the ‘horrible scarring’ devastated him. His scars seemed to be an outward reflection of how he felt about his losses. I think I understood what Wiggs was trying to imply about Rand, but it never fully came across in the story, which was unfortunate.
The third major character, Maggie, also had a few chapters from her point of view. I found it interesting and unique to have part of the story told from the child’s perspective in this genre, but ultimately those parts of the story were the weakest for me. They were dull and Maggie’s only the age of 6 in the story, making her point of view unrealistically precocious for the thought process of a child.
I know I’ve focused pretty heavily on characters, but for me, romances hinge on characters and the chemistry they have. I really enjoyed this story despite Rand being less developed; the bond the two romantic leads shared was enough to keep me enthralled. At the end of the story, I had become so attached to Lucy and the relationship that when it seemed to be in peril, my heart was in my throat. I genuinely felt as though I would be sick if things didn’t work out. I think its this feeling that has led me to give the story 4 stars instead of 3 like so many others have.
Generally, when you read this genre, you have an assured happy ever after, but it didn’t feel guaranteed here. I realize this is a problem for some people, but it was so refreshing to sweat for their love to work. Normally, I never get nervous with historical romances but this one made me experience them like I’d never read one before. The pair did get their happy ending, but the perils of the book made me wonder, which was a welcome relief. This wouldn’t always work, but in this instance I think it worked well.
TL;DR: Of the romantic duo, one was less developed than the other. However, Wiggs took a refreshing take on the story that kept me flipping pages deep into the night.
Rate: 4 out of 5 Stars