Girls Burn Brighter

Shobha Rao

Flatiron, 2018

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

A searing, electrifying debut novel set in India and America, about the extraordinary bond between two girls who are driven apart but never stop trying to find one another again.
Poornima and Savitha have three strikes against them. They are poor. They are smart. They are girls.

When Poornima was just a toddler, she was about to fall into a river.  Her mother, beside herself, screamed at her father to grab her. But he hesitated: “I was standing there, and I was thinking…she’s just a girl. Let her go…That’s the thing with girls, isn’t it…You think, Push. That’s all it would take. Just one little push.”

After her mother’s death, Poornima has very little kindness in her life.  She is left to take care of her siblings and her father until the matchmaker can find her a suitable match.  So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by the independent minded girl. Suddenly their Indian village doesn't feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond the arranged marriage her father is desperate to secure for her. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend again. Her journey takes her into the darkest corners of India's underworld, on a harrowing cross-continental journey, and eventually to an apartment complex in Seattle. Alternating between the girls’ perspectives as they face relentless obstacles, Girls Burn Brighter introduces two heroines who never lose the hope that burns within them.


• Finalist for the 88th California Book Awards

• Longlisted for the Simpson Family Literary Prize
• Longlist for the 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

• Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, Washington PostLit Hub, Paste Magazine, Shelf Awareness, and


"Girls Burn Brighter contains many scenes that will make readers seethe at the injustice against women in this world, but what they may remember long after reading is the book's sustained and elegant prose. Not elegant like, say, a perfectly carved pediment but like human longing pared to its essentials. Shobha Rao writes cleanly and eloquently about women who, without their brightness, might have been left to die in their beds. She writes them into life, into existence, into the light of day."
Los Angeles Times

"A searing portrait of what feminism looks like in much of the world, Shobha Rao's first novel...follows an incandescent friendship between two South Indian teens who, after they are separated by a terrible crime, continue to influence each other as they defy tradition and expectation, trading security for terrifyingly uncharted paths in America."

"Girls Burn Brighter reveals a truth about being a woman of a lower caste, deeply impoverished village background who is perceived as ugly and disobedient. Here is the rampant familial physical abuse, frightening street harassment, abductions and human trafficking that can potentially infiltrate the life of an undervalued girl in either India or America. This is a painful and riveting novel that takes on rape culture with so much fire and grace it should speak to readers all over the world."
San Francisco Chronicle

“The quiet power of Rao's prose shines… The novel is a powerful testament to how something as seemingly small as a private friendship between two girls can be a tool to resist oppression.”
Dallas Morning News

“Enchanting… The resplendent prose captures the nuances and intensity of two best friends on the brink of an uncertain and precarious adulthood… An incisive study of a friendship’s unbreakable bond.” 
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"This powerful, heart-wrenching novel and its two unforgettable heroines offer an extraordinary example of the strength that can be summoned in even the most terrible situations...[Rao builds] to an ending that takes your breath away in its magnificence and beauty."
Booklist (starred)

"Rao relates this story with real power and humanity...This tale of sacrifice, exploitation, and reclamation is not to be missed."
Library Journal (starred)

"[A] stirring debut novel....Affecting and rich...Vivid depictions of contemporary Indian culture and harrowing accounts of human trafficking—along with the novel's ambiguous ending—will leave readers, and book clubs, with much to ponder and discuss."
Publisher's Weekly

"Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter reads, in some places, as bleakly as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The unrelenting poverty, misogyny, and corruption experienced by protagonists Poornima and Savitha seem insurmountable. Rao shows how that’s true and false, depending on twists of fate, but she never loses the thread of their humanity, of their right to exist and make their own decisions. Unforgettable."

"Girls Burn Brighter is a beautiful testament to female friendship."

"Girls Burn Brighter is the kind of book you open and fall into. This is the confident, assured debut from San Francisco-based Shobha Rao."

"Burns with clearly a writer of great ambition."
USA Today

"Girls Burn Brighter is a testament to the strength of female friendship in the face of unimaginable trauma... Shobha Rao astounds in her debut novel...not just with stunning prose, but with mastery of pacing, too...Over the course of its brutal and blazing trajectory, the novel never loses sight of the two strong, sensitive souls at its center, leaving the reader breathless in the presence of their power."
Shelf Awareness

"This novel burnt up my weekend. With beautiful language, warm friendships, and vivid images, once I started reading I could not stop. It's a story of struggle and survival. Female friendship is the lifeline."
Claire Cameron, author of The Bear and The Last Neanderthal

"Girls Burn Brighter blew my heart up. Heart shards everywhere. I am in awe of the warmth and humanity in this book, even as it explores some incredibly dark places. I'm going to be thinking about Girls Burn Brighter for a while, and you're going to be hearing a lot about it."
Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky

"There is a powerful, subtly unarticulated, force of nature drive at the heart of Shoba Rao's blazing, beautiful novel....Rao gives voice and visibility to people seldom given either....This book goes on, around the world, to shimmer with an immensity and intensity few other books of our time approach."
Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company