Satisfying & Believable, Though Imperfect - Burning by Elana K. Arnold
There's a lot to like in Elana K. Arnold’s sophomore novel, Burning. It’s one of the stronger dual first person point-of-view novels I’ve read since that narrative style has gained popularity. Its ending is incredibly satisfying and believable. And, Burning is a solid exploration of the idea of breaking free and forging one’s own path.
The events of Burning unfold during a single week the summer of Burning Man, around the nearby fictional (though realistic) town of Gypsum, Nevada. Gypsum is a company town, with everyone working at the local gypsum mine, shopping at a company store and living in company-owned housing. When the mine closes, the entire town shuts down with it, leaving its residents scattering. Local boy Ben is set to leave Gypsum thanks to a track scholarship in San Diego, while his family--along with most of his friends who aren’t so fortunate--are heading for Reno in hopes of finding work.
Passing through Gypsum with her family is Lala, a Romani (Gypsy) girl from Portland, who’s traveling with her extended family when they make a stop in Nevada to earn some quick cash telling the fortunes of Burning Man visitors. Lala’s at a turning point in her life; once she turns 18, Lala will wed her betrothed through an arranged marriage and leave her beloved family. With her wedding date rapidly approaching, Lala questions if that’s the life she wants, and if she really has any choices at all.
Once you begin to question your people’s beliefs, it is a slipper slope. Soon you can find yourself questioning everything.
The two meet by chance, setting off a series of events that change both of their lives in just a few days.
Both Ben and Lala are each wracked with guilt over their secret desires to break free from a proscribed life. Ben’s scholarship in California means that he will escape the cycle of poverty almost everyone in his Gypsum is stuck in.
They’re just busy arranging their lives into cardboard boxes, I told myself. It’s nothing personal.
Still, I felt a twinge. The line was clear--there was me, Ben Stanely, going off to college--and then there was them. The good people of Gypsum. Off to ... well, nowhere I’d want to go.
Lala wants to see if there’s something else out there for her, but worries that even if that were possible, striking out on her own would leave her younger sister alone and cause irreversible problems for her traditional family.
One of the more intriguing elements of Burning is the way Lala uses Ben as a means to escape.
I do believe that response to this story would be different if the gender roles were reversed. (Click here to read a minor spoiler for details.) This isn't a criticism, it's an observation. The characters both needed their relationship to reach that point together to move forward, Ben from his dying town, despite his love for his friends and family, and Lala from a way of life that wouldn't work for her, despite her love for her family and culture.
All my life I had been marked. All my life I had been someone else’s girl--first my father's then Romeo's ... already I was labeled as another boy’s girl.
One of the most interesting elements of this story is how Lala's phone has given her access to other cultures/places/thinking in a way that previous generations have not had.
My phone had given me a secret window into the world. Through it I had seen many things-glimpses of other cultures, other people, their past as well as their present.
This is probably a very real experience for youth in insular communities, and intrigued me tremendously. For Lala, this disruption was a good thing on a personal level, but I found myself wondering how technology will negatively affect culture and what this means for traditional cultures in particular.
The resolution to Ben and Lala’s story is an abrupt one, and for me, it was a near-perfect ending and exactly right for these characters. It won’t please everyone, because it leaves the reader wondering, but I believed in the direction the characters were headed. I do imagine, however, that the suddenness of Burning’s ending will be unsatisfying to many readers, despite that it’s in keeping with then novel’s overarching theme of breaking free, which is woven in nicely throughout the story (including the subplots involving both main characters’ relationship with their respective siblings).
I was however, frustrated by the info-dumping early in the novel regarding Gypsy culture.
This could have been woven into the characters' interactions rather than having Lala speak directly to the reader. Because Burning is told from first person POV, it feels incongruous that Lala is sharing this about herself in her own internal reflections on her life and dreams. I would have preferred that understanding of Lala’s cultural context come through her interactions with other people, particularly in her conversations with Ben. Burning is quite an engrossing read, and Lala’s voice is particularly engaging, and these sudden switches in tone were disruptive and every time made me wonder if they’d been inserted during the editorial process with the assumption that readers wouldn’t pick up on the subtler revelations regarding Lala’s culture.
Ben’s circumstances are relayed to the reader thanks to his interactions with his friends and family, as well as Lala, so there’s no reason to think that the same couldn’t have been done with Lala’s backstory.
I also have a big issue with the marketing of this book, particularly the tagline, “Small-Town Boy, Gypsy Girl, One Hot Summer.”
I’ve held off on posting this review, because I’ve struggled to flesh out exactly what it is that feels off about it. I think it comes down to this: It feels as if the tagline fetishizes Gypsy culture, which the book itself does not. Except for an eye roll-inducing fortunetelling scene near the novel’s conclusion, the cultural aspects of Burning feel authentic and hold true to what I know about Gypsy culture having had probably more personal experience with it than the average American (though, obviously, that experience is through the lens of my own cultural context as an outsider).
The same is true for the back cover summary, which emphasizes Lala’s fortunetelling ability as a magical thing, rather than Lala’s skill, as she explains, with reading people and picking up on their nonverbal cues. I wish Random House’s marketing department understood that this is inappropriate. (I have to repeat that this is not reflective of the Burning’s content, only the packaging.)
As I mentioned, Burning is one of the few recent dual first-person point-of-view novels I’ve read in which the two narrators feel very distinct, and the character development works quite effectively within this narrative style.
This is definitely aided by the book’s events unfolding over just the course of a few days, so it never feels repetitious or jumpy. If you’re a fun of the style of the dual point-of-view “new adult” novels that are all the rage at the moment, you may want to check out Burning as well, because it also has a "new adult" vibe in a way that a lot of books actually marketed that way don't, given that it's an intense exploration of newly adult young people trying to figure out the sort of adults they want to be.
I am not a mountain, I thought, I am not a mouse.
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.