Ben's town is folding up. The mine's bust and everyone is forced to go somewhere else to build new homes, join new communities, get new jobs. Ben's case is different. He gets a college scholarship and although guilty about it, Ben is looking forward to the future. Lala is a Romani. Being a Gypsy means that she doesn't put down roots; anywhere the family caravan goes, she comes with. Maybe that life sounds okay to her sister, but it hardly appeals to Lala, especially when she's forced to marry someone she doesn't love. When Ben and Lala meet, there is passion that burns just as enticing as the annual Burning Man event in Nevada. But just like almost everything that burns, there's the residual smoke and ash to account for.
Ben is not perfect. He's just an ordinary guy who gets an amazing college scholarship that would definitely give him a far better future than most people in his home town. While readers may catch a glimpse at how guilty Ben is over his good fortune, we can't really deprive him of a pat on the back for doing well. Ben is a romantic, and so when he meets Lala, he's very confident that she needs him, just as much as he needs her. He's so into Lala that he's this close to casting aside his future just to be with her. Lala, on the other hand, envies his freedom. Being a Romani means that strict rules are applied to the womenfolk. She's tired of everybody dictating what she can or can't do, and she knows that the arranged marriage will be the first step to a new enslavement. I liked that Lala was unafraid of being on her own, and even when she's given a chance to not be so alone, she's fearless about wanting to find herself first, and I don't think a lot of people will choose that. While her ambition may have been impractical to people of her descent, Lala is very pragmatic when it comes to her newly found freedom.
If like me you were looking for just an unconventional romance, Burning is not really something I'd tout as such. More than the romance, Burning is all about growing up and making important choices, which I think is relevant to today's teens. But while I do somehow get the gist of what Arnold is driving towards, Burning is just too much of everything. I understand that when it comes to this intense attraction, all sense and rationality just has the tendency to fly away. But I think it's not unseemly for me to say that Ben and Lala fell in love too fast, too passionate. Oftentimes, there are paragraphs devoted to convince the reader of their overwhelming attraction to each other that it got kind of boring and cloying.
I must admit that I was disappointed by the ending of the book, and the unexpected intensity of the romance. Burning isn't some cute, fluffy romance that you can coo over. It's not for people who want to escape to a world where hot guys with six-pack abs live happily ever after with girls who have rocking bodies and sleek hair. Sadly, I approached Burning the same way I did with any other contemporary romance, and I think that that was the reason why I didn't appreciate it so much. Ben and Lala are flawed characters, but I think that was the reason why I wasn't into the book. They reminded me too much of real life, of growing up, of the importance of finding one's self in a sea of people.
While I applaud Ben and Lala for the decisions that they have come to, the romantic in me had been temporarily defeated by the unexpected dose of realism after I finished this one. The romance was a tad too over-the-top but the outcome made it all the more believable, and I imagine that this is would resonate with a lot of teenagers.