The Secret and the Flame is a contemporary romance that details the relationship between Emma Delaney, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, and Dylan O’Shea, a Chicago firefighter. The book follows their initial meeting when Dylan rescues her from an apartment fire to their experiences as roommates and, eventually, lovers. Some of the other people who factor largely in their livesare Jeremy, Emma’s skeevy and meddlesome ex-boyfriend, and Mary, Dylan’s well-read mother who happens to work at Northwestern and has as penchant for Irish writers.
Overall, I found the book an easy read. It was interesting from the outset and the plot kept a fairly steady pace. When you start off the book with a fire that destroys the main character’s life, it can be difficult to keep a reader engaged as life settles back to normal. The Secret and the Flame is technically sound, which I expected once I learned the author is a graduate of Northwestern’s journalism program. This is definitely a strong effort for Hopfinger’s debut novel.
As someone who’s never been to Chicago, I found Hopfinger’s descriptions rich and effective. There were several times where I could vividly imagine the rooms in the mansion or the chaos of the Claddagh bar. Luckily, Hopfinger managed to do this without making the book drag on for several pages unnecessarily.
Hopfinger also did a good job of managing the way Emma rebounded both physically and emotionally. The fire devastated her by leaving her homeless, without any belongings, and destroyed all of her progress toward her dissertation on the mysterious poems of a famous Irish poet. She also handled Dylan’s own transformation with realism and candor. His frustrations around his progress as a firefighter combined with his family history make for turmoil that both he and Emma fight to overcome.
The peripheral characters fit well into the book — there weren’t so many characters I needed a chart to distinguish them, nor were they underutilized. Each of the characters had a very clear identity, too. From the “life of the party” best friend, Kristina, to the quiet, family-oriented Justin, each character in the book had realistic personalities and temperaments that were clear to see through Hopfinger’s scenes. The dialog among characters is realistic, as are the reactions the characters have to their experiences.
My real gripe is that the plot is based almost exclusively on a set of coincidences that make it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief. I don’t believe in spoiling the plot, so I won’t detail them here. Suffice it to say that I had more than a few moments where I felt that the way the puzzle pieces fell together in this book were pretty over the top, even for a romance novel. If you can get past that, however, The Secret and the Flame is worth giving a chance.
As a nice accompaniment to this book is a set of Pinterest boards the author created to give depth to the characters. Perusing this shows some great visuals that will help give insight into Emma and Dylan’s personalities, styles, and careers. I especially liked “The Mansion” board — see what amazing ways the main setting of the book could be decorated in real life. I didn’t really look at this until after I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and it does create some spoilers, so I recommend waiting until you’ve finished to peruse it.