Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: Burning by Elana K. Arnold

Title: Burning
Author: Elana K. Arnold
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Release Date: 11 June 2013

Ben: Having just graduated from high school, Ben is set to leave Gypsum, Nevada. It's good timing since the gypsum mine that is the lifeblood of the area is closing, shutting the whole town down with it. Ben is lucky: he's headed to San Diego, where he's got a track scholarship at the University of California. But his best friends, Pete and Hog Boy, don't have college to look forward to, so to make them happy, Ben goes with them to check out the hot chick parked on the side of Highway 447.

Lala: She and her Gypsy family earn money by telling fortunes. Some customers choose Tarot cards; others have their palms read. The thousands of people attending the nearby Burning Man festival spend lots of cash--especially as Lala gives uncanny readings. But lately Lala's been questioning whether there might be more to life than her upcoming arranged marriage. And the day she reads Ben's cards is the day that everything changes for her...and for him.

Burning brims with the passion of two young people, both at crossroads in their lives, and both forever altered by one moment in time.

Young Adult, as a genre, has been falling out of favor with me. To be fair, I never really loved it and only dabbled in it to find those occasionally great stories. Burning is probably a book that I would have passed by at nearly any other time, but something about the blurb caught my eye. Maybe it was the idea of two totally different people from two completely different worlds coming together for a time and changing each other's lives. Maybe it was the gypsy aspect, which I'm willing to admit to always finding somewhat romantic even though I've known the harsher realities of their lifestyle for many years. I think it was probably a combination of all the above.

Burning is told in alternating first person points of view – each chapter switches from Ben to Lala – and this really allows us to get into the characters' heads and experience their thoughts, decisions and emotions. Immediately recognizable was the fact that Ben and Lala had very distinct voices. Even without the headers at the beginning of each chapter, bearing the POV character's name, I always knew whose head I was in.

Ben is much like any eighteen-year-old boy. Grown up in some ways, and still very much a boy in others. He tried to do right by those he cared about, and as Lala would put it, he was nice. More than that, though, Ben wasn't perfect. He had some incredibly, I hesitate to use the word but, ignorant preconceived notions regarding a specific character. I don't want to give too much away, but what he felt, why he felt it, and how it was portrayed – and resolved – was very realistic, and so poignant to me. His flaws served to give him room to grow, and more than anything this story is about Ben's growth. A small piece of it at the beginning of his journey into adulthood, but a few steps along that road, and it was gripping to read.

I felt kind of angry with myself for spending the last few days I'd be with my family doing my damnedest to avoid them. It wasn't that I wouldn't miss them; I would. Maybe that was the point – maybe I was weaning myself off of them.

Lala, having grown up a gypsy, comes from a very different culture than Ben. Where a lot of people will likely relate to Ben, his family, and his lifestyle; they might not have experience with Lala's lifestyle, traditions, and beliefs as easily. I'll be honest and say that I don't know a lot about modern gypsies and haven't even studied gypsies in history for many years, but everything Ms. Arnold wrote here about the family dynamic, the kumpĂ nyas, the very defined gender roles and expectations, their beliefs and ideas – it all felt real to me. I understood Lala, her desire to be both a good daughter and make her family proud, and to escape, to live her own life. She's a strong young woman. Stronger, more sure of herself and her decisions that Ben, for sure; that was refreshing.

A faint wind stirred my hair. It felt almost like a hand at my back, urging me forward. To feel like I was disappearing, just by crossing a road...to become invisible...the possibility of invisibility appealed to me. Always in my life I was watched, weighed, valued, measured.

This book easily fell into Bildungsroman for me, a story about two characters coming-of-age, growing, learning a little more about themselves and becoming more fully themselves. While Lala and Ben's meeting is definitely the catalyst for a lot of what happens in the story, the focus of the story lies more with their individual character developments. Ms. Arnold never seemed to take the easy way out, these characters lived – and that's what made their story so gripping to me. It's a simple story, filled with normal moments, momentous decisions, happiness, tears, cruelty and kindness.

I do not think I had truly recognized how precious solitude was to me until it became clear that I would not have it much longer. And growing in my like ivy, strengthening each day and choking out everything else, was the resentment I felt at the impending loss.

As I try to write this review I'm trying to point out what held me so tightly in its grip, and it's difficult. If I try to catalogue everything, I come up with something incredibly ordinary; Burning is anything but. Burning is poignant, gripping and an even somewhat bittersweet book about growing up, forging your own path, and the journey that is always one step in front of you.

Rating: A

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Ellis Henrika said...

Initially, I wasn't that interested in this book but the reviews have been very positive. A common theme seems to be that Arnold keeps the story so real.

I also love the idea of it being bittersweet. I've been disappointed with many of the YA contemporaries I've tried lately. They don't just have a happy ending. They have a happy happy happy ending. It annoys me. I love this review. It makes me excited by proxy.

Angela said...

The drown-you-in-sugar-sweetly-happy endings that appear to be everywhere in YA are part of the turn off for me. I'm not sure I'm a bit believer in an HEA happening at that point in life too frequently - I can buy it occasionally, but it's just everywhere lately! This does end on a hopeful note, I think, but it's definitely not saccharine sweet.

I hope you try this, and I can't wait to see your thoughts!

Elana K Arnold said...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful review. I am so glad you liked BURNING.

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