This is a coming-of-age romance between recent high school graduate Ben Stanley from the dying company town of Gypsum, Nevada, and a Romani (“Gypsy”) girl Lala White whose family has set up a campsite just outside Ben’s town. [Although Gypsum is fictional, it is very much like the actual town of Empire, Nevada, a former company town centered on gypsum mining about 100 miles northeast of Reno in the Black Rock Desert that closed down in 2011.]
Lala’s family is trying to capitalize on the nearby Burning Man festival, where close to 50,000 gather each year [in real life] for a weeklong event that draws, according to Ben, “artists, musicians, druggies, hippies, ravens, nudists – from all over the world” – a perfect potential customer base for fortune tellers. Lala, 18 like Ben, is due to marry Romeo, also at the camp, in a month; following Romani custom his family “purchased” Lala for a rather steep bride price. Lala should be happy, but she feels increasingly trapped.
When Ben’s two best friends, Pete and Hog Boy, bring Ben to her tent for a fortune telling, Ben and Lala are attracted to each other immediately. For Ben it is InstaForeverandEverLove but for Lala it is more like InstaLust. Nevertheless, the two improbably find a way to get together, and as the Burning Man effigy crashes and burns in the desert, so do their former lives.
Evaluation: This book has some good aspects; the information on both the Romani culture and on the Burning Man Festival seems fairly accurate. The tie-in with The Catcher in the Rye is an apt, if uninventive, trope for a coming of age book. However, the prose is sophomoric and, when the narrative perspective switches to Lala, absurd. Romani people, even those who adhere to old customs, do not talk like robots. Those two aspects of the author’s prose are shown in combination when Lala first sees Ben:
“Deep inside me, it was as if something was waking and stretching its limbs. Some secret dragon hibernating in my core had been stirred by the presence of this boy.. … I knew from the expressions on their faces that the way I looked was pleasing to them – why should it not be? I was young, healthy, full of life.”
And “Hog Boy” who acts like his name, a best friend of nice guy Ben? Doesn’t seem likely, although I give them the benefit of the doubt since the town is so small the kids don’t have many choices for friends.
As for the fortune telling scenes, they are so insipid that it is too absurd to think people would keep saying “wow, how does she know that?” Lala herself says “I have always known that there is no magic in the cards. … I show them what I see – what I need no cards to see. The truth is in their faces.” [There’s a scene, for example, in which Lala reads a man’s hands, and tells him he has had health problems and everyone is so impressed…. (he’s wearing a bracelet that says “I am stronger than cancer.”)] But in the end, even Lala “reads” her own cards to help her make a decision.
Evaluation: The denouement is unexpected, but refreshing. Still, I would have wished for way better writing and some character development, of which there is very little.
Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House’s Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013