Book Review – Burro Hills by Julia Lynn Rubin

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

I was given an eARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review will be spoiler-free.

I’d like to get this out in the open right away: I was disappointed with this book. Now, this may have been partially my fault. I think I went into it with high expectations, hoping it would be similar to one of my favorite novels, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Not that I wanted it to be the same plotline. Rather, I was just hoping it would hit me as hard as that novel had. I wanted this book to make me feel something, and it just didn’t deliver.

Still, there were some great moments in this novel, which I’d like to point out before I go into the more negative aspects. The first great thing that I felt Rubin did exceptionally well was characterization. When it came to the main characters in this novel, they were all very unique from one another and easily recognizable. They all had personalities that made them feel incredibly realistic, and Rubin introduced them with some super quotable lines. A great example of this that happens close to the beginning of the novel is “She looked like a piece of candy, a bright, sunny popsicle.” Another example that occurs a few lines later (about a different girl) is “Every time she spoke, it made me think of a wind-up toy, dizzy and spinning and squeaking.” Most of the characterization in this novel is just as vivid as these two, and it gives you a great mental image of the characters and an understanding of their personalities in just a few short, beautifully worded lines.

Which leads me to the next thing Rubin did really well. It wasn’t just the moments of characterization that were beautifully written. This was definitely a literary novel, filled with amazing, quotable writing that carried me through the story. Moments of imagery and world building were written in the same style as the characterization, and when those moments came about I was able to picture everything very clearly.

The third and final thing that I really enjoyed in this novel was the romance. I’m a sucker for a love story, and the moments that focused in on Jack (the main character) and Connor were my favorites. Although I wouldn’t say their relationship was always the healthiest, it was very relatable and realistic, and added some great drama and tension to the story.

Unfortunately, a sense of overarching tension was definitely missing from this novel. While there were tense moments during each of the different plotlines that were going on throughout the book, there was never the sense of anything really being at stake. And I think this is a result of there not really being a story. Instead, it was a mishmash of different plotlines that didn’t have much overlap, and none of the plotlines were focused on enough to develop them properly. Just as we were getting somewhere in the story about Jack and his friend Jess, the chapter ended and then we were focusing on Jack and Connor. But whenever things started to feel tense with them we jumped to the plotline focused on Jack and his relationship with his parents. If everything had pulled together in the end and related in some way, I might have forgiven this, but it really didn’t. I got the sense that Rubin tried to make it all related, but she just didn’t pull through, and the climax was very underwhelming for me because I didn’t really care about any of the characters.

Other than that, the one big thing that sort of ruined the book for me was a scene that included sexual assault. There were actually a couple of scenes that included sexual assault, and one mention of attempted rape, so I’d also like to throw out that trigger warning for any potential readers. But the moment I’m talking about occurred in a flashback, between Jack when he was thirteen and a girl–no, a woman–who was in college at the time. Normally I don’t have a problem with an author including sensitive subjects in their novels, so long as they have a purpose, but that was my exact issue with this instance. Not only was it sexual assault, but it was also statutory rape and could even be considered pedophilia on the woman’s part, and the only purpose it seemed to serve was to show how gay Jack was because he didn’t want to have sex with this hot college girl who was throwing herself at him. Maybe that wasn’t Rubin’s intention when she wrote the scene, but since the incident never came up again in the story or played any major role in any plotline, I have to assume that was its intention, which is wrong on so many levels. It implies that a thirteen-year-old boy would have to be gay to not want to have sex with someone like that, and that’s just not the case. It made me really uncomfortable, but thankfully it happened early in the novel and I was able to enjoy the rest of the book without letting it mar my reading experience too much.

All-in-all, there were some parts of this book that I really enjoyed, and others that weren’t my cup of tea. I was actually considering giving it 3 stars instead of 3.5, but the romance was what made me give it that extra half of a star. Though I wish Rubin had given it the page time it deserved and spent more time developing it, what was there was fun to read and kept me pushing through the not-so-good parts of this book.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel to anyone (because there’s similar, better stories out there), I think it would appeal most to fans of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s books. However, anyone who is bothered or triggered by sexual assault/rape, slurs about sexuality, and/or detailed drug use might want to consider passing this book up.

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