Light of the Fire: A Novel
- By Sarahlyn Bruck
- Lake Union Publishing
- 315 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia S. Gormley
- February 7, 2024
Two women grapple with the fallout from a long-ago cruel act.
Ally and Beth are the only girls on their high school’s soccer team in the town of Fillmore, and they’re mercilessly bullied by the guys because of it. So, when they find themselves running from a series of explosions emanating from the gym, they quickly realize it’s because of the stink bombs they planted as a prank in the boys’ locker room.
Unfortunately, the unintentional resulting fire burns the gym to the ground, and the school’s janitor is arrested, convicted of negligence, and sent to prison. A stunned Ally and Beth, who’ve long planned to become professional athletes, recognize that in order to keep their hoped-for futures intact, they’ll have to make a critical choice:
“In a few agonizing seconds, the cold, clear reality of their future set in. Ally realized this moment could define their entire lives — if they let it. Soccer would become a memory…they would be rejected by every college…friends, community, even families would reject them. If she wanted the future she envisioned, the one she had worked for, her best option would be to distance herself from this fiery debacle.”
The girls swear never to reveal the truth and agree that this shared secret will be the knot around their friendship that makes them closer than ever. But they are mistaken, as author Sarahlyn Bruck does an excellent job of illustrating in the rich, rewarding Light of the Fire.
Following the blaze — and the friends’ fateful decision — the novel jumps forward two decades, with Ally and Beth in dramatically different positions than when we left them. Beth wakes up in a Chicago hospital after her fourth (and career-ending) concussion sustained while playing on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. Ally, a divorced mother of two teen daughters and unexpectedly pregnant again, abandoned her pro-athlete dreams when she left college to have her first baby. She still lives in Fillmore, where she manages a thriving girls’ soccer league.
Despite their onetime pledge to stay close, Ally and Beth have almost resolutely not remained in contact. The women, whose identities were once fully intertwined, love but fundamentally misunderstand each other. To Ally, Beth — whose soccer career took her away from town and the weight of their crime — is unreliable and disloyal. To Beth, Ally is a quitter who abandoned their mutual dream and settled. Neither of these things is entirely true, but neither is it entirely false.
They’re thrown back together when Beth returns home after her father suffers a massive stroke. Their former classmate Jordan, the journalist-son of the wrongfully accused janitor, is also in town, both to move his dad into an assisted-living facility and to prove the older man’s innocence. Eventually, Ally and Beth are forced to reconcile who they once were with who they are now. Their conflicting feelings and long-held resentments elegantly tip against each other like dominos as Bruck dives into the complexities surrounding how we see each other and ourselves.
For her part, Beth, who’s made her career her entire identity, struggles to view herself as something other than an athlete. (Sadly, her father does, too, and offers little emotional support to his reeling daughter.) In describing a written schedule Beth can’t bear to part with, Bruck’s language is specific and painful:
“This piece of paper represented all she had going on in life. Her whole being revolved around those games, and for almost two decades, she’d shaped her life to fit…at the expense of friends, family, marriage, kids…On this one sheet of paper was an entire season that held so much promise to her. Just a few days before, she’d seen all those games ahead of her as opportunities not just to win, but to prove herself.”
Ally’s identity, meanwhile, is rooted in both soccer and motherhood. “Because she’d played too,” Bruck writes, “Ally shared a deep connection with her daughters, like an unsevered umbilical cord that kept the three of them tethered together.” Subconsciously, Ally feels protected from her past actions, almost as if her current role running a girls’ league — and offering young women a far safer space than she and Beth ever enjoyed — atones for having destroyed an innocent man’s life and reputation.
As the women seek to untangle their thorny identity issues — as supporting and strangling as ivy — and resolve past hurts, they must also try to unearth the seeds of their friendship and make them grow once more. In telling Beth and Ally’s story, Bruck skillfully reminds us that nobody is ever just one thing; we all contain multitudes.
Patricia S. Gormley recently lives in Northern Virginia with her librarian husband and five small, mysterious beings who profess to be cats but who behave like permanently disgruntled toddlers with no verbal skills.