When the Smoke Clears introduces readers to Talia Brighton, a woman who lost her firefighter husband, Russ, in a fire two years earlier. Reflecting on the past two years, she starts to doubt her parenting skills to their five-year-old daughter Riley. The stress and trauma show up in Talia’s life as sleepwalking and hallucinations of her husband while out running. I enjoyed this storyline very much and was really looking forward to the development of not only Talia and Riley’s characters but also of Russ and the relationships between all three of them. As a mother of a first responder, I have learned that the relationships we have with them are even more precious than with others since they are putting their lives in potentially dangerous situations every day for the greater good. When Talia decided to go see a grief counselor she was referred to, I looked forward to “listening in” on their sessions.
As the story moves on, Talia’s backstory is introduced to the reader. After the death of their mother, Talia and her sister Naomi were taken in by their Aunt Miriam who was rather strict and seemed to resent the girls. Talia remembers Miriam taking them to an orphanage and leaving them there. Talia was only three years old, and Naomi was five. From then on, most of the story was about Talia and Naomi growing up and Talia trying to recall events from when she was little. Even though learning a character’s past is usually helpful in understanding their present circumstances and behaviors, in this case, I felt almost like it was a bait-and-switch. I kept wanting the story to return to the present day and be about the counseling and relationship with Russ, however, the story with Miriam took up most of the book. Then, as Miriam is on her deathbed, Talia receives a call from a man in Australia about her late grandfather’s affairs. This, too, was part of the backstory and the reader is left waiting to return to the original story.
There were many times when the author went off on tangents taking a while to describe the scenery or have Talia explain how mountain lions were actually not predators to humans. My eyes started to glaze over in these parts of the book because it really slowed down the flow of the story.
Overall, I felt like the two storylines did not mesh together well, although both were interesting. I would have loved this book to be about Talia and her husband and then perhaps having it lead to another book about Talia and her relationship with her aunt, sister, and other family members when she was growing up. When the Smoke Clears is an entertaining story with themes of grief, suicide, PTSD, abuse, and the dynamic of family relationships.