The Burning Girl: A Novel
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud relates the story of a close childhood friendship between Julia and Cassie that collapses by middle school as the girls grow apart and Cassie becomes troubled. The Burning Girl is a skilled portrayal of a tight, childhood, female bond and its intersection with school and family life. However, although Messud constructs a good, well-written tale, it feels all too familiar; we’ve heard the story many times before.
Narrated by a teenaged Julia a few years after she last has contact with Cassie, she recalls their relationship, how they drifted apart, and how Cassie became increasingly disturbed.
The girls grow up together in the fictional town of Royston, Massachusetts. Julia’s father, a dentist and her mother, a freelance journalist who reads The New Yorker, have high expectations for their daughter.
By contrast, Cassie’s more working-class single mother, is a hospice care nurse who attends church regularly, possesses a ”broad behind,” “perfectly manicured” nails, and has “sweet-smelling” hair. Cassie is petite and radiates white-blonde hair, while Julia is darker and feels large and ungainly by comparison. It’s clear from the get go that the girls will grow apart as they mature.
Yet the girls are inseparable as children. They work at an animal shelter together over the summer and make a sort of clubhouse/retreat at a shuttered asylum near the town quarry. Julia provides more than hints that the friendship won’t last. For instance, at the animal shelter, Cassie knowingly violates the rules by entering the cage of a dangerous dog and gets badly bitten.
Later, Cassie becomes friends with a new girl named Delia who moved to Royston from another town. She wears lipgloss and “bulging push-up bras,” and then Cassie too develops a bad reputation. Her once-devoted mother then betrays Cassie by inviting a new beau, a creepy, religious, authoritarian doctor to move into their home. She loses her privacy and freedom and feels abandoned by her mother.
Meanwhile, Julia continues to excel in school, joins the debate team, has stable and supportive parents, and makes more high-achieving friends.
Julia opens the novel with the assertion, “You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed.” But Julia’s tone doesn’t really show that she’s all that bothered or pained. It feels flat and too even-handed. She does not convey anger or pain, just a measured, rational disappointment.
Although Julia claims that she and Cassie are “secret sisters” and “umbilically linked” it doesn’t feel credible. Her voice is too measured and her sadness and anger of losing her friend don’t come through. After Cassie runs away, Julia imagines seeing her in the play ground and concludes: “But I realized that Cassie in my mind’s eye wasn’t the girl of then, pure figment, gone.” While nicely written and descriptive, Julia seems too distant and analytical, and does not sound her age.
Claire Messud is undoubtedly a deeply skilled writer and storyteller. The Burning Girl is certainly a competent addition to the girl friendship novels, coming-of-age stories, and reminiscences of lost youth and friendship, but it is not poignant, powerful, or memorable enough for such a genre and such a story.