Beautiful Burn by Jamie McGuire is an angsty New Adult romance that takes some of the tropes prevalent in the subgenre and flips them upside-down. Generally speaking, I’m still iffy on New Adult: to me it often feels artificially dark, with characters (generally the hero) who seem “broken” for no good reason. Beautiful Burn has that darkness, but provides a satisfying context for it. It also deals with substance abuse in a serious and thoughtful way. It’s a little uneven, though, and it has A LOT of characters to keep track of.
Ellison “Ellie” Edson is the daughter of a tech billionaire. Ellie has no responsibilities and no direction in life. She spends her time globe-trotting, abusing drugs and alcohol, and having one night-stands with both men and women. Ellie is in Estes Park, Colorado, when one of her legendary parties gets out of control. As a result her parents decide to cut her off, demanding that she get a job and pay her way, as well as pay for the damages done to their home. Since Ellie has no experience, no relevant education, and no skills, this seems impossible.
Up until this point I didn’t care much for Ellie. I wasn’t impressed with her “poor little rich girl” attitude and self-destructive behavior–but I wasn’t meant to be. A huge part of this book is Ellie growing the fuck up, getting sober, getting a job and learning to be self-reliant.
That job starts out an administrative assistant, then photographer for a magazine called The MountainEar. One of Ellie’s assignments is to follow and photograph an interagency hotshot crew — think the special forces of fire fighting. These guys travel from state to state, putting out dangerous wildfires with chainsaws and testosterone. One of the firefighters is Tyler Maddox, a previous one-night-stand of Ellie’s.
When Ellie is on the mountain with Tyler and his crew, she finds the peace and purpose she’s looking for:
Tyler had brought me as close as he could, trying to help his crew while keeping an eye on me. We’d camped for two nights, and excluding any embers jumping the fire line, he predicted we would be packing up by nightfall. No one was more surprised than me that I wasn’t looking forward to it.
There were no engines with hoses or pumper trucks full of water. The hotshots fought fires with drip torches, shovels, and chainsaws, digging trenches to pull everything out of the ground that could fuel the fire.
I wasn’t scared of heights, but a strange combination of fear and exhilaration came over me as I looked down at the valley below. The wind was blowing chunks of hair into my face, and I realized it was also blowing the fire toward the Alpine crew. Time slowed down as I stared at Tyler. We were stuck in a moment I’d never been in before, not skiing a summit, not on a wave runner off the beaches of Thailand, not hiking Machu Picchu. We were on top of the world, the only force between the fire and the houses I could see from the mountain we were standing on. Holding my camera, freezing, and a mile from flames that could burn me alive, I’d finally found what I didn’t know I was looking for.
“Back up, sweetheart,” Tyler said, reaching across my chest like my mother used to do when she’d slow the car down too fast.
I was nearly hanging over his arm, leaning forward, hungry to be closer, snapping shot after shot, devouring the adrenaline as fast as my body could produce it. It was better than any high I’d ever had.
Her photographs are so successfully received that the magazines arranges for Ellie to be imbedded with the hotshot crew, keeping her close to Tyler. It’s clear that Tyler has feelings for her–and she for him–but Ellie is still struggling to maintain her sobriety and figure out a life where she has to fend for herself.
I found the details about the hotshot crew fascinating, and the scenes where Ellie is with them, camping on the mountain, were my favorites.
I also really liked that the heroine of the novel was the “damaged” one–the billionaire who can only “fuck,” not love. The genre is chock full of self-destructive, damaged billionaire heroes–it was nice to see the gender roles flipped. And I appreciated that Ellie’s problems weren’t resolved by Tyler’s magic peen. Her road to sobriety is a hard one–she relapses, she hits rock bottom. Tyler doesn’t fix Ellie, but he supports her though her journey even when her substance abuse threatens to destroy their relationship. Ellie’s addictions are complicated, not easily solved, and a huge hindrance to her having a healthy romantic relationship. She also has other toxic relationships that she has to sever in order to move on.
Beautiful Burn isn’t perfect, however; it took me a good quarter of the book to really get invested in the characters and decide that I liked Ellie. There are also a lot of supporting characters to keep track of, and since the Maddox family decides to name all their kids with T’s (Tyler, for example, has a twin named Taylor), it was sometimes unnecessarily confusing. I think there were scenes intended to intersect with other books in the series, but to me they felt wedged in and out of place.
Also all the hotshots have nicknames like “Pup,” “Sugar,” “Cat,” and “Taco.” There’s a character named Jew–and the nickname is never explained. I’m taking it on faith that his last name is Jewel or something and it’s not a reference to his religion.
Once I got past Ellie falling out with her parents and got to see her finally finding her agency, I really enjoyed the book. The set-up and the denouement were a stretched out maybe a bit too much, but the middle two-thirds of the book really captured me.
Fans of darker, angsty romance should definitely give Beautiful Burn a try. For me Ellie’s personal journey was as satisfying as her romance with Tyler, and the details about the hotshots fighting wildfires got me past the glut of secondary characters and sections that dragged a bit.