I read Meg Medina's Burn Baby Burn for my YA Book Club. It was my selection, but it wasn't an easy choice for me. I rejected some other well-received and well-reviewed books before landing on Burn Baby Burn. I really enjoyed Medina's Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, so I felt confident in this choice. The fact that part of the title contained "kick your ass" mostly guaranteed my enjoying it. I was enjoying Burn Baby Burn until the specter of stupid rose from the pages and slapped me hard in the face. I was enjoying it until the protagonist did something that made her seem too stupid to live.
Have you ever gone to the movies and the character, usually the female character, does something that is so absurd, so ridiculous, so stupid that you can't keep a comment or loud guffaw to yourself? You know you have. Nora became one of those characters for me, and while there was some small part of me that wanted her to redeem herself I also knew that it was unlikely because as I've said before when it comes to fictional characters the petty can be strong with me. Even stronger than the petty is the unforgiving. Generally speaking, I need to like the characters to like a book, but there have been a few exceptions. As the chapters ticked by I wasn't hopeful about this book being one of the exceptions.
Burn Baby Burn takes place in New York City during 1977. I'm familiar with 1977 NYC because my mother loves to tell stories about how it ruined any and all possibilities of her raising her children in a big city. She says 1977 was the summer of murder, fire, blackouts, looting, and searing heat. My mother loves to tell the story about how she had to dive to the sidewalk because a man was running down the street shooting a gun. She describes it as a practice Armageddon. Medina's Burn Baby Burn covered the murder, fire, blackouts, looting, and heat, but never allows the setting or grizzly history to overwhelm the story or the character development. The story stays true to Nora Lopez and the emotional and familial struggles she faces during her senior year in high school. She is reaching desperately for adulthood, but must overcome disappointment, abuse, poverty, and her own negative mindset.
Honestly, I grew weary of Nora's secrets and lies. All of her lies. All of her secrets. All of her excuses. It was tiresome. I realize I need to make some allowances for her age, and I did until Chapter 28. Chapter 28 was when I just couldn't handle Nora any longer, it was when the character seemed to devolve. It was the moment I realized that maybe Nora enjoys her misery. Maybe she wants to keep her coat of many lies and secrets for some reason that escapes me. She became Eeyore in human form, but not half as endearing.
The secondary characters weren't nearly as well developed as Nora, but that's to be expected from first-person narration. Even without being as developed they provide relief from Nora's myopic cloud of doom. The two exceptions being Nora's deluded and broken mother, Mima, and her terrifying brother, Hector. Hector is truly frighteningand you know that even after you've closed the book his future life is the type that brings jail and death. Her mother's future is more uncertain.
Nora's future will be whatever Nora makes it, and I wish her the best, but by the end of the book I was still annoyed with her, but edging towards forgiveness. Her friend Kathleen puts it best, "I could have been your friend Nora," but I just can't shake how I feel. At the end of it all I enjoyed the journey I took with Nora. Burn Baby Burn is one of those rare exceptions for me. It is maybe the third book where my dislike or indifference or annoyance for the protagonist won't keep me from recommending the book to others.
I'll always be a character driven reader, but I can't discount what Medina has done. She's created characters so real my dislike, my fear, and my disgust lingered even after I closed the book. I say read Burn Baby Burn and get lost in an imaginary disco soundtrack as you take Nora's less than fantastic, but promising voyage.