Published by Albert Whitman & Company on September 15, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Format: ARC, eBook
Source: Review Copy
Arlie’s face was disfigured by burns when her stepfather’s meth lab exploded. After that, Arlie discovered the street smarts and survival skills she needed to shelter her addict mother, since the law and Lloyd, her deranged stepfather, are both looking for them. People died in the explosion and everyone wants answers. But Arlie’s carefully constructed world is ripped apart when her mother commits suicide shortly after Arlie’s sixteenth birthday. Now she can no longer remain hidden. Social Services steps in and before Arlie can make sense of anything, she is following the rules, going to school, and living in a thirty-one-foot Airstream trailer with an eccentric uncle she didn’t even know she had. Then she meets a boy who doesn’t care about her scars or her past. Just when she begins to think a normal life might be possible, Lloyd shows up. He’s looking for the drug money he insists Arlie’s mother stole. Will Arlie be able to shield her uncle and her boyfriend from Lloyd? Did Lloyd somehow play a role in her mother’s death? And can she get rid of him once and for all before her world blows apart again?
Burn Girl by Mandy Mikulencak should, by all intents and purposes, be a powerful read. It should be an emotional read, and one that forces you to see just how deeply addiction, abuse, and neglect can scar a person, both mentally and physically. And for the most part, Burn Girl captures that.
When we meet Arlie, we are immediately thrown into the story of her mother dying from an overdose. There’s no cutesy introduction or slow beginning, but rather an immediate realization that Arlie’s life is anything but simple. I liked that. I liked the stark reality of having a mother who needs more care from the child than vice versa. It was interesting and captivating in every way.
And I especially liked Arlie’s relationships with Mo and Frank. It’s rare that a female friendship in a YA novel that’s not centered around said friendship is explored and detailed so vividly as that of Mo and Arlie. Each facet of their relationship with one another in Burn Girl is real and solid, unlike other friendships found in the young adult genre. It was fun to see how far each girl was willing to push the boundaries of their friendship, despite how much strain it put on each of them.
And as far as Frank is concerned, he was the character that allowed Arlie to begin to trust again. At least people who were considered family. Frank was the character I wanted to wrap up in a bubble and protect from Mikulencak’s world because he was just trying to do the right thing by Arlie and his sister. He’s a precious baby who deserves to be protected at all costs. And I loved that Frank was trying to give Arlie that stable home life that she deserves as a 16-year-old girl, because it just proved him to be all the more sweet.
My one major flaw with Burn Girl was Arlie’s relationship with Cody. It felt too forced, as if Mikulencak felt like a relationship in a YA novel was a must, simply because every other YA novel has one. I didn’t like that Cody was blind, because I felt like it took away from his seeing Arlie beyond her facial scar. It feels like a cop out to the story line. If he can’t see the scar, it doesn’t have to be addressed. And then, when Arlie magically gets her sense of taste and smell back because Cody kissed her, I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room in agitation. Boy kisses do not have magical healing powers, okay?!
But aside from the aforementioned relationship, I believe Burn Girl is a truly worthwhile read. Despite its flaws, there are powerful, touching moments within its pages that make Mikulencak’s newest work worth the read.