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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
“The friendship of two girls, Julia and Cassie, animates this slim, dreamlike novel…Messud plays, lightly, with familiar archetypes, deftly abstracting her take so that it flares into myth.”
- The New Yorker
“[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
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Claire Messud, one of our finest novelists, is as accomplished at weaving a compelling fictional world as she is at asking the big questions: To what extent can we know ourselves and others? What are the stories we create to comprehend our lives and relationships? Brilliantly mixing fable and coming-of-age tale, The Burning Girl gets to the heart of these matters in an absolutely irresistible way.
My Thoughts: Julia (JuJu) and Cassie met in nursery school and bonded over similar interests, and a unique ability to know what the other girl was feeling.
At some point, and after Cassie has seemingly turned away from Julia, rather abruptly, the two are barely civil for a while. In fact, some of Cassie’s new friends are downright mean girls.
The Burning Girl: A Novel moves back and forth in time, showing us some of their best adventures together, like exploring the abandoned asylum near the quarry. Those moments spent there would come back later in the book in a pivotal way.
Cassie is described as frail, beautiful, and with “famous” white blond hair. But her behavior over the years is “slutty,” according to the other girls, and soon Cassie is isolated from everyone except the bad girls. Cassie’s issues exacerbate after her mother invites her new boyfriend to stay with them. Dr. Anders Shute seems to offer Cassie’s mother Bev a feeling of upward mobility, in which she can feel “better than” she once felt. Meanwhile, Cassie struggles with her daddy issues and resents Dr. Shute’s controlling attitudes.
What happens when Cassie completely goes off the rails, disappearing mysteriously? After her second disappearance, Julia is drawn into a sense of connection with Cassie again, having dreams of a dark cloak covering a “burning girl.”
I like Julia’s musings near the end: “Whatever choices we think we make, whatever we think we can control, has a life and a destiny we cannot fully see. That I can sense the way the plot will go, that I could…save the life of one Cassie Burnes—it’s only an illusion I cling to.”
A book that moved slowly in the beginning, but always had a hint of darkness that might be revealed later on, the tale was a coming-of-age story with mystical edges. Still, I could only give this book 4 stars. It kept me engaged, but there was much to ponder that left me shaking my head.
Throughout the book, Julia, the narrator, speaks with candidness about her best friend, Cassie, who acts more like a seductive manipulator than a childhood companion. One dull Massachusetts summer day, while volunteering in an animal shelter, Julia and Cassie break the rules to feel alive, leading to a dog chowing down on Cassie's arm. As a result, she's stuck in a cast put on by a "charming" doctor and the canine is put to sleep. This foreshadows the dangers that will haunt this literary work and the relationships that reside within it.
Still bored with their young adult lives, the girls break the rules again and go to a creek on the edge of town. It's here where Cassie continues to draw Julia in. When their classmate Peter approaches the girls, apologizing for his friend's mean behavior, Cassie tells Julia that she'd rather marry her than any of the boys around. Their relationship skirts on romantic, even though no romance ever evolves.
It seems as if Julia is constantly keeping up with Cassie and her demands, afraid to get into trouble again, but also concerned that staying away from trouble will bore her companion to death. Cassie's father is dead, her mother says, but she believes he watches over her, being a string of hope during dark days. As for her mother, she's a nurse who treats Cassie more like a partner than a child, saying that it's them against the world, until it's the world against Cassie. Julia and Cassie's refuge for the summer and their little secret is an abandoned asylum. It keeps them occupied until other things occupy Cassie.
Upon going to junior high school, Cassie finds her fun and excitement. She befriends a girl Julia calls “Evil Morsel.” The deteriorating friendship between Julia and Cassie turns into an obsession as Julia constantly tries to win back Cassie's affection through invitations to hang out, yet Cassie has already made other plans. She's now the pretty girl in school and even dates Peter, Julia's longtime crush. This deepens Julia’s obsession, longing or even jealousy. Many have experienced those moments in life when their best friend breaks up with them, and they feel that loss like the end of a marriage. They can't understand why and begin to feel as if something must be wrong with them. On a daily basis, Julia notices Cassie's beautiful white hair, her slim body, and the way she changes into her sexy clothes after arriving at school. She feels bad for her yet almost wants to be her.
Cassie's mother, who has long been single, has begun dating the doctor who helped place the cast on Cassie. They met in Bible study, but Cassie finds this suspicious. He isn't from their town and has never attended their church. She wonders who he is after, and what he wants as he controls Cassie's every move, what she wears, who she speaks with on the phone, and what she searches for on the computer. Julia now wants to help her friend, questioning this man’s integrity, but Cassie isn't interested in her or her help. Perhaps Cassie's ambivalence towards Julia is what got her into this mess. Maybe abandoning the only family who offered her refuge made her life so eventful that it began crumbling into so many pieces that it wasn't a life at all.
THE BURNING GIRL is written with prose that slides off the tongue like ice. It's a cold story, one without much to hold onto but for the fact that sometimes we have to look out for ourselves. People don't always want our help. Everyone is telling himself or herself a different story.
Reviewed by Bianca Ambrosio