Adolescence, those angst ridden years when friendships sometimes resemble love affairs and the whole world turns fraught, might be a time best appreciated in hindsight. The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s latest novel, offers just that — a haunting, layered, elegiac story about the abiding intensity of friendship between adolescent girls and the inevitable, painful unravelling of that friendship. As with Messud’s last great novel, The Woman Upstairs, this is not a particularly lighthearted read, though it is overflowing with exquisite writing and sophisticated inquiry into the perennial question of whether we can really know those closest to us.
Julia, the novel’s cautious and cerebral narrator, befriends charismatic, bold Cassie in nursery school and counts her as a “secret sister” throughout their shared childhood. The book’s opening section introduces us to Cassie and Julia in the summer before seventh grade, the final, pre-lapsarian era of their friendship, during which they volunteer at an animal shelter and enjoy tanning, listening to Katy Perry, picnicking at the swimming quarry, and, most thrillingly, exploring an abandoned asylum in the woods near their very small hometown of Royston, Massachusetts. Both beloved only children, Julia and Cassie nonetheless come from different backgrounds — Julia’s father is a dentist and her mother a freelance journalist, whereas Cassie’s single mother is a hospice worker with a blank history. Cassie’s father is absent. During the course of story, Cassie’s mother marries a sinister and Puritanical local doctor whose motives seem at best misguided and at worst malicious. Though we never learn what is happening in Cassie’s household, it can’t be good since Cassie begins running away, and her friendship base shifts to the wrong sort as the story progresses.