A Prayer For Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
“The entire right side of my face was throbbing, but Penny still looked beautiful; her exquisite features unmarred. She bore no physical changes from the events of the evening, no by-product of terror beyond the characteristic flush of her cheeks. Yet it was her beauty that had been the catalyst for all disaster. It worked on men like a disease.”
I love books that push the envelope and challenge me, whether it’s through the content covered or the style in which the story is written. A Prayer for Travelers did both and even though I finished my buddy read with Lupita over a month ago, we were still DM’ing about this story as of yesterday. To me, THAT is the sign of a good book. So what exactly is it about this jarring debut that has made it so memorable?
For starters, the writing is STUNNING. Ruchika has a way with words that left me breathless at times - from the beauty of her descriptions as well as from the sheer brutality that occurs within her writing. It reads like a fevered dream, at some points, more of a nightmare - with frightening, panicked scenes interspersed throughout. The story is centered around Cale and Penny, two teenage girls who dare to want something more for their lives and who both desperately want to escape their current circumstances. The non-linear writing format allows the reader to be completely immersed in the chaos and confusion that Cale experiences when Penny goes missing and Cale begins her frantic search for her friend. You begin the story in Chapter 31 and then move to Chapter 3, which I will admit, took some getting used to for me in the beginning. I later learned from the author that her intent behind the chapter lay out was to mimic the way we process and cope with trauma. Often, events are recalled out of order and large periods of time are unaccounted for, so the writing style is incredibly effective in disorienting the reader and making you question absolutely everything that is happening.
Cale is very much alone in the world - she has lost her mother to drugs and is being raised by her grandfather, who loves her deeply but has recently become very distant as he struggles with his cancer diagnosis. She is a loner at school and in the town - an outsider looking in - who, more than anything, wants to be noticed by the local “it” girl, Penny. When Cale takes a job at the same restaurant where Penny works, a fast and obsessive friendship develops. Penny as a character is elusive - Tomar allows brief glimpses in to her life, but for the most part, the development of Penny’s story is much like a mirage in the desert. I had a bad feeling the more that I read and warning bells were going off all around me. Many times I found myself yelling at the book, CALE WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? GET OUT OF THERE!! But if Penny said “jump”, Cale said “how high?” Her blind trust in her new found “friend” was very difficult for me to read at times and it leads to a horrific incident in the desert one night where both of the girls lives are altered forever.
This book will not be for everyone….. yes, it is a story about the resilience of women and their fierce refusal to be broken by their circumstances but it is a very tough read. A Prayer for Travelers really examines trauma and how it shapes the female experience… it’s about how women process assault experiences, lean on one another and attempt to cope.… how women get up every day and put one foot in front of the other, even when the unspeakable has happened to them. And for Cale, it was also about the longing for female connection, for a sense of belonging, for wanting more than what she had and daring to think that she could go out and grab it. Did she ultimately achieve that or was she just another one of Penny’s hustles? You will have to read the book and find out.
Many thanks to Riverhead Books for providing an advanced copy for me in exchange for my honest review. And to Ruchika, who spent almost an entire afternoon discussing the brilliance that is her book with me, THANK YOU. Thank you for your time, thank you for your voice, and thank you for writing a story that will no doubt speak to so many women who have found themselves the victims of violence.
To order a copy of A Prayer for Travelers, please click here.
To learn more about Ruchika Tomar, click here.