Review: Burning by Elana K. Arnold

BurningTitle: Burning

Author: Elana K. Arnold

Genre: YA Contemporary, Coming of Age

Publication Date: June 11, 2013

Source: ARC provided by Amazon Vine

Synopsis: 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.

☆: 3/5 stars- The male POV sections are awful, but it’s worth it for Lala Motherfucking White

If you have the self-awareness to realize the tagline and jacket copy are offensive as all get-out to Romani people because of its use of “gypsy,” please befriend me. That way the jacket copy misrepresents the story so thoroughly and plays up the most stereotypical elements of Romani people is awful and whoever came up with the two should be ashamed. This had me worried going in that this would be beyond offensive as a novel, but Burning was a pleasant surprise. It’s a shame the novel is characterized the way it is and so many people might avoid it because while there are problems, only half the story is really that bad.

This ought to be Lala’s book. Not hers and Ben’s together. Just hers. Lala is much stronger as a character, has a lot more to lose because of how her culture works, and make some spot-on commentary on sexism in Romani culture. The sad thing is that there’s so much overlap between the expectations put on Romani women and the expectations put on women regardless of what culture they come from or what nation they live in. My favorite observation of hers out of the many, many gems she gives readers? This one:

“All my life I had been someone else’s girl–first my father’s, then Romeo’s. Now, I had been free of my engagement to Romeo for less than four hours, and already I was labeled as another boy’s girl (ARC p. 232).”

Ben is one of the most sexist, racist, downright vile characters I’ve ever come across. Right away, he calls Lala magical and says she’s bewitching him. It’s bad enough to say any woman is doing that, let alone a Romani woman. By page 76, he’s decided they’re meant to be and he’ll have her no matter the cost. For the rest of the book, he sees her as this beautiful, exotic Gypsy and that’s pretty solidly racist when an outsider like him uses it the way he does. He puts down other girls he knows/has been with because Lala is ~so much better than them and he can’t stand the thought of a woman protecting herself or protecting a man.  I kid you not, he says he needs to protect Lala’s virtue. GAH.

Ben has a friend nicknamed Hog Boy who tends to be just as vile but be more open about it. That seems to be his only purpose: to be gross. I STILL like Hog Boy better. At least we’re not stuck in his head as he preaches sexist crap and is racist toward the girl he’s supposed to love. All of Ben’s flaws outweigh any good points he’s supposed to have a character, which makes liking, sympathizing with, or appreciating his character darn near impossible. He and his friends and family are all so casually racist that it’s hard to like any of them, really. Except his gay little brother James. He can be a bit racist too, but he’s twelve and I’m more sympathetic to him because his brother treats him badly.

Calling what’s between Ben and Lala a romance is a mistake. Ben is in love with the beautiful, exotic image of Lala he’s cooked up; Lala is attracted to him at first and then falls in love with the freedom accepting her attraction to him offers by proxy. If they loved each other, Ben wouldn’t be so racist so often. Even the simple act of calling her a Gypsy is racist (according to the two hours of research I did in preparation for this review). Lala is either never around to correct him or simply doesn’t correct him on it. This isn’t how love should work.

The scene during which these two meet is highly problematic, but most of it falls on Ben (I detailed that above). Lala is only involved by circumstance. The Tarot card reading she gives him is based off not only her interpretations of the cards, but also his body language and what information she gets from him and his friends. Then she does it again at the end of the novel to get them into Burning Man with a cold reading of a man’s palm. The Romani people have been stereotyped for a very long time as con artists who use tricks like these. Putting Lala in that position was a huge problem.

So TL;DR on that one: Ben is where all the problems are and it’s so tempting to tell you, dear reader, to skip his sections and stick to Lala’s because she’s perfect.

YA as a category is fond of happy endings, but Burning lacks one of those. What it gets instead is a perfect ending that does right by one of its narrators by giving them what they really need: an ending that doesn’t stick them in a romance when they’re only just discovering what they really want. It’s one of the best endings I’ve come across recently, if not one of the best endings I’ve come across period.  It’s worth picking up solely for Lala, but do a little background research on Romani culture first. You’ll be glad you did.

One thought on “Review: Burning by Elana K. Arnold

  1. Pingback: Stacking the Shelves: Week 48 | birth of a new witch.

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