The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
Claire Messud is the accomplished author of acclaimed novels The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children. The Burning Girl, is a mesmerising history of the friendship between two teenage girls. Julia and Cassie have known each other since kindergarten. Both only children, they are as close as sisters. Julia, the narrator, comes from a middle-class family. Cassie’s father died when she was a baby, and her mother, Bev, struggles to make ends meet.
Julia tells the story of the last summer she and Cassie experienced as true friends. They work in an animal shelter, swim in the local quarry and play imaginary games in the abandoned asylum nearby. But seventh grade brings new opportunities and friendships for them both, particularly Cassie. Julia is confused and hurt by these changes, and the novel goes on to follow the girls’ divergent paths, with Cassie’s the more dangerous one.
Julia is the kind of narrator I enjoy – wise beyond her years and psychologically astute. Messud’s narrators always pose important philosophical and psychological questions and in this instance the subject matter is storytelling. Julia muses at the start of the book, ‘It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means.’ As she attempts to piece together Cassie’s path over the next few years, she must rely on rumours and hearsay, while dealing with her own grief at their distance. In high school, Julia discovers acting and public speaking, and becomes passionate about stories. Telling Cassie’s story becomes imperative for her, enabling her to define herself, and possibly even save Cassie, the ‘burning girl’ of the title.
This superb meditation on friendship and storytelling is a must-read for fans of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, or of Megan Abbott’s dark novels about adolescence.