A Prayer for Travelers

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 09 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

I’m diverging from my normal types of book reviews that are usually just a summary of plot and as vanilla of an opinion about the book as possible. The thing is, I haven’t read a book like this in a long time. A book that sucked me in from the very beginning, that wouldn’t let me go, that had me feeling so understood and so lost at the same time.

Unfolding in a splintered, non-linear timeline — the way traumatic memories are often stored — we sink into Cale’s memories as she (in the broadest description possible) tries to understand her role as a woman in a small western town. It’s one of those small towns that doesn’t let its people go easily; generations of families have gone to the same diner, the same schools, the same stores. But what happens when you want more? When you realize your potential, your destiny, lies beyond the city limits you’ve spent your whole life in?

Driven by grief after the death of her father, Cale becomes laser-focused on unraveling the mystery of what happened to Penny: a former classmate-turned-coworker who’d take Cale under her wing as they worked side by side at the town’s favorite diner. But the loss of her father isn’t the only thing Cale is grieving. She’s also lost pieces of herself in brutal ways that she’s aware of, but can’t really understand beyond the abstract.

It’s not just Cale’s story that pulled me into this book, but Tomar’s luscious prose, especially where setting is concerned. The deserts of Nevada and California fill every space between words, a subconscious reason for Cale (and the rest of the characters) to stay focused on survival even in the most unlikely conditions. The rain will come, the night will end, you’ll find water eventually.

What happens in this book is so layered on a psychological level that I’m still processing my feelings about what happened. True, the time span of the main events is short — but when does life ever space out traumatic, heartbreaking events in a way that makes things easy for us? And I found Cale’s reactions to everything that’s thrown at her to be so real and so relatable. She’s running, physically and mentally, away from her childhood, the shock of grief keeping her from understanding where she’s going and why. So caught up in trying to find the missing Penny, Cale doesn’t realize she’s lost herself, no longer tethered to a place by the man who raised her, by a job, by whatever understanding of family and roots she had grown up with.

We’re more than halfway through 2019, and I’m more than halfway through my reading challenge but A Prayer for Travelers has not only been the best book I’ve read all year, but the most important book as well. A gripping page-turner of a survival story, A Prayer for Travelers is this decade’s White Oleander.
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I finished this one a while ago but am having trouble deciding how I feel about it. Writers today often write a narrative that jumps around in time, and Ruchika Tomar also employs this method. Some authors do this better than others. For the first third of the book I had trouble keeping up and if asked to rate the book at that time I would have given it three stars. The middle third of the book was gripping and at one point (can't remember when exactly) I felt this was a great book and that it deserved 4 stars. By the end of the book I was back to 3 stars. The plot and characters were well done and in general I'm glad I read the book. Somehow I felt that it could still be better.
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When my brain starts to make connections between stories, it usually stays with in one medium. For example, I tend to compare books to books, movies to movies, songs to songs, etc. But every now and then, I’ll run across a story that jumps across media. That’s exactly what happened when I read Ruchika Tomar’s hypnotic novel, A Prayer for Travelers. This mystery, set in the north Nevada desert, reminded me strongly of Memento, The Long Goodbye, and, weirdly, The Big Lebowski (but only the mystery part of that movie, not the bowling stuff). The story of Cale seeking her friend Penny is told out of order so that we’re piecing things together as much as Cale was when she lived it. It’s also packed with twists that make our protagonist—and us—wonder who we can trust and who the real villain is.

Cale is a loner. For most of her life, she has her taciturn grandfather (who raised her after Cale’s mother abandoned her) and their dogs for companionship. In high school, that changes when she meets Penny. Their friendship really starts to blossom when Cale gets a job waitressing alongside Penny in the sole diner in (fictional) Pomoc, Nevada. Penny draws Cale out of her shell; Cale looks to Penny to learn how “normal” people interact with each other. When Penny goes missing one day and no one seems particularly interested in looking for her, Cale goes looking for her friend, criss-crossing desolate roads through the Great Basin Desert and encountering all sorts of strange desert people who really want to be left alone.

Because the story is told out of order, it takes some time to finally learn not just what happened to Penny, but also how Cale’s face was injured, how the two women became friends, what happened to Cale’s grandfather—as well as witness a whole bunch of bad decisions. The more I read this book, I more hooked I was. Of course the mystery grabbed me, but what really captured my attention was the fact that Cale is a fantastic narrator. Her sharp observations and ability to turn a phrase make not just the characters come to life, but also the setting around them. There were moments in A Prayer for Traveler’s when I could smell the juniper and feel the dust on my skin as Cale talked about her home. I love it when narrators can do that.

I don’t want to say too much about what happens in this book other than what I’ve already said, because I don’t want to give any thing away. The only hint I’ll give is that readers who have a hard time with nonlinear narratives can use the out-of-order chapter numbers to ground themselves in the book’s chronology. Readers who enjoy mysteries where nothing can be trusted, who like a challenge, and/or love narrators who can really bring the settings to life will enjoy this gritty, intensely human novel of a woman trying to find a friend in a lonely place.
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