Publication date: August 29th 2017
Julia and Cassie meet in nursery school and are best friends from that moment on. Cassie is the power and spirit in their duo and Julia is the steadfast and careful one. The dynamic works until the end of middle school when what was so strong starts to fray. Cassie makes a new friend, a girl she used to mock with Julia, for being so silly and interested in boys. Julia watches as the closest friend she’s ever known slips away and even when she knows things are not all right, her old friend doesn’t want her help. Claire Messud explores this most delicate of relationships in her new novel, The Burning Girl.
As is often the case it a boy who lies at the heart of the shift in Julia and Cassie’s friendship. In this case, it’s Peter who Julia has a crush on, but who does not feel the same way. He likes Cassie.
Whatever her reason for saying yes when he asked if he could kiss her, it stung. We didn’t fight outright—I couldn’t risk it—but we became stiff with each other. We stepped through the looking glass into a world all of fake friendliness…
Between this betrayal and Cassie’s propulsion into an older, cooler crowd, Julia finds herself left behind. Her interest in academics and playing it safe no longer fit with the new Cassie. Messud compounds the issues by layering in an external element—Cassie’s mother’s boyfriend, who moves in with them. His interest in Cassie and his determination to impose his strict religious beliefs on her only exacerbate her behavior and move her further away from Julia, who still knows her friend well enough to know that something is wrong.
I had other friends, but I’d lost the friend I loved best, and had loved without thinking for as long as I could remember, and it seemed absolutely essential not to appear to care.
This sentiment is where Julia finds herself and if you cannot relate to it at all, then you probably are not going to understand The Burning Girl. However, Messud uses such light strokes in filling in the details of this most tender age—not little girls, not yet grown up—that while much can be seen clearly and understood, there is something about the novel that escaped me. I was left puzzled, if not for the feelings of losing an old friend then, possibly, for a larger theme about young women and their ability to live freely. Julia herself wonders:
Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.
Messud comes tantalizingly close to what feels like an important truth, but leaves too much shadow to see it clearly. Regardless, she has once again provoked my thoughts. If her portrayal of the teenage female in The Burning Girl is not as fierce as was the midlife female in The Woman Upstairs, it is still more than enough to unearth all kinds of memories. This is a novel that will resonate for anyone whose passage through adolescence either had them lighting a match to burn the bonds of childhood or finding themselves left in flames.