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.
The second segment of the book conveys Julia’s disturbing awareness that growing up brings both loss of innocence and freedom. “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.” Compounding this growing realization, Cassie and Julia’s relationship strains and cracks as their differences multiply, leaving Julia feeling sad, frustrated, and betrayed. And finally, in the third section, Cassie disappears, while Julia contemplates what might have happened to Cassie and how her own role in the friendship and her compassion for Cassie ultimately failed. The novel’s resolution depends on Julia’s intuition.
Messud is too masterful a storyteller to leave it at that. She refuses to give us the expected story arc when Cassie disappears in the book’s climactic third section, and instead gives the whole book a meta narrative spin. Julia observes, “We take the vast, inchoate, ungraspable swell of events and emotions that surrounds us and in which we are immersed, and we funnel it into a simplified narrative, a simple story that we represent as true . . . . Like gods, we invent a world that makes sense.” She might well be speaking of the fictional enterprise and its limitations which makes the book much more interesting than its straightforward plot suggests. Much of the book mirrors Julia’s attempts to make sense, to construct a cohesive story, about what happens to Cassie throughout these formative years. The Burning Girl is also very much a book about the disguises and masks put on in service of this self-generated story. Julia’s symbolic nightmare in which Cassie dons a black feathered cloak that both hides her and enables her to fly away arrives straight out of fairy tale and brings the book full circle, back to their childhood days of the encroaching forest and the foreboding asylum. The nightmare cloak burns into Cassie’s skin, irremovable, consuming, and fatal. This symbol gathers the book’s motifs and themes into one horrifying image. Friendship in Messud’s depiction of adolescence floats upon the primal swells of emotion and menace found in fairy tale; this final layering of fable adds punch to the story’s conclusion.
Some readers may find The Burning Girl overwrought, or too interior; however, Messud is, after all, writing about contemporary tween and teenage girls growing up in a time that is too often traumatic in one sense or another. Readers who appreciate a well crafted novel, magnificent writing, and a nuanced take on what happens to girls as they grow up will find much to mull here. With her sharp depictions of this critical shift between tween and teen, it is impossible not to feel as though one is reliving those bewildering years firsthand, and its concern with the essential inscrutability of people makes The Burning Girl tend toward the universal.
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud (W.W. Norton & Co. | 9780393635027 | August 29, 2017)