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The Burning Girl: A Novel Hardcover – August 29, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of September 2017: Claire Messud’s seventh novel, The Burning Girl, may be to adolescent girlhood what The Catcher in the Rye was to generations of boys. It’s one of those novels that seems to encompass all that is important about that intense period of life and love, despite being narrow in scope. Told in the first person by Julia, a young teenager living in a small town outside Boston, there is as much passion here as in like Romeo and Juliet, but the loves at stake are more varied and less certain. Her relationship with her mother, her attraction to a boy at school, and centrally, her childhood friendship with reckless, beautiful Cassie, all prove to be subject to change. Messud’s great theme is mutability; the way that change represents freedom, but also threatens us with loss. In its happiest moments, Cassie and Julia’s friendship allows them to be anyone at all. Too soon, though, the girls’ play becomes constrained by social forces, among them, the power of stories – stories about girls and what can happen to them – and what power they might have over those narratives. Echoes of Greek myths and fairy tales remind readers that Julia’s concerns are ages old, and resonate far beyond her suburban milieu. This is a moving, serious book which I’m recommending to all the women I know – and will be giving to my own teenage daughter in the hopes that this story about stories will help her question, and create, her own. --Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon Book Review
“[Messud] is an absolute master storyteller and bafflingly good writer…It is that combination of imagination and skill that makes The Burning Girl exceptional…It amplifies that subtle, piercing shift between Cassie and Julia, made brighter by passages of sheer splendorous prose.”
- Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times
“[A] masterwork of psychological fiction…Messud teases readers with a psychological mystery, withholding information and then cannily parceling it out.”
- Julia Klein, Chicago Tribune
“Ms. Messud is at her most incisive in exploring the volatile transition from childhood to adolescence.”
- Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“Messud is psychologically astute about her characters and about the competing social and familial pressures…that make adolescent friendship and its dissolution so fraught.”
- Boston Globe
“[Messud] has specialized in creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives…Long before the recent success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, which tells of the complex, often vexed, lifelong friendship between two women, Messud was narrating these stories with an unusual intensity―and quietly making a case for women’s interiority as a subject worthy of the most serious examination.”
- Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine
“Messud is committed to the deep emotional excavation of her characters, revealing and exploring the complex inner impulses that fuel their stories. . . . the author's prose and insights are breathtaking. . . . With this novel, Messud brings her own particular brand of astuteness and emotional intelligence through her careful and thoughtful prose.”
- San Francisco Chronicle
“The kind of book more common in the middle of the twentieth century than it is today; novels written for adults in the first-person voice of a child or adolescent but entirely accessible to readers of their protagonists’ age. You’ll know the ones I mean, school classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. . . . The Burning Girl has a more sophisticated structure, in its unobtrusive handling of the relation between its narrative voice and Julia’s younger self, and its moral complexities seem greater too.”
- Michael Gorra, New York Review of Books
“Slim but impactful. . . . The Burning Girl asks how well we can ever know our closest confidants and answers its own question with every refined page.”
- Vanity Fair
“[An] intense coming-of-age novel…Messud captures the complicated nature of contemporary adolescence through a nuanced portrait of childhood love and loyalty deteriorating under the pressure of approaching adulthood.”
- Jane Ciabattari, BBC
“Elegantly constructed. . . . Messud's gift is to understand the nuances of female friendship and believe that they are worthy of sustained and unhurried attention.”
- Evening Standard
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One day, the girls’ curiosity takes them past their usual spot, initiated by Cassie, to an abandoned asylum, deep in the woods. It becomes their playground for the summer and a secret between them.
When school starts, the two once inseparable girls, drift apart, not by Julia’s choice, find other friends and interests. Julia still pines for her friend. Not quite letting go.
Cassie’s home life becomes unbearable and she shares this with Julia, over their once a week lunches at school. Her mother has a new relationship with a man who makes Cassie extremely uncomfortable in her own home and lays down some rules that seem excessive. All the while, Julia continues to look out for her, without Cassie’s knowledge.
While the book’s title comes from a twist on a line in an Elizabeth Bishop poem, several things appear to be figuratively burning. Julia’s desire to maintain her friendship with Cassie, perhaps even some control over her. They are growing up, but she doesn’t want to let go. Cassie is literally about to boil over with frustration about her home life, trying to understand who she is, and if she can believe the one truth she holds so dearly. Teenage angst plays out in the worst way and while what one friend thinks is helpful another only sees rage.
Messud taps into something I think most women can relate to; an early strong friendship that does not survive time’s passing. These tight bonds often form in elementary school and fail to thrive either after a family move, or changing interests, or new friendships, but sometimes you don’t know why the friendship ends. Through Juju and Claire, Messud brought me back in time to my elementary school “bestie”, Anne, and the adventures that we had together, the planning of our weddings, the venting of our frustrations with our siblings (we each had one sister and three brothers), and I felt nostalgic for that innocent time. Anne’s father was transferred out of state right before we entered Junior High (now called “Middle School”) and our friendship faded naturally. So I think this will be a touch-point for many many readers.
But “The Burning Girl” is more than a quaint walk down memory lane. Messud introduces a central mystery and hints at a darkness that propels the drama forward. While touching on themes of girlhood vs womanhood, teen-age angst, and the chilling knowledge that parents don’t always know what’s happening in their own homes, Messud has crafted a story that confronts us with the fact that we don’t always get answers.