The Burning Girl
The young female narrator has become incredibly popular particularly in American Young Adult fiction. YA is big business with a plethora of formulaic narratives and often mediocre writing. But Claire Messud's “The Burning Girl” is neither formulaic nor is it a YA novel despite being focused on the childhood friendship of two young women. It is, of course, beautifully written with Messud’s customary attention to detail and precise use of language. But the novel also shows a level of understanding of the interior lives and exterior pressures inherent in a girl’s growth to adulthood—an understanding that is often missing in female-centered narratives.
“The Burning Girl” is a story of the friendship between two young women who've known each other since pre-school. It is also the story of the collapse of friendship under the pressures of family, class, sex, and the violence inherent in being a young woman in the world. Messud's narrator, Julia, is seventeen and looking back at her friendship with Cassie, the burning girl of the title. While there are some issues with Julia's voice—her language is overly adult in some instances and pushing too hard to be "cool" in others—the novel's slow build to a terribly sad conclusion is well wrought. Here are two white girls from very different homes suffering very different pressures and yet they are "umbilically linked" making their eventual separation that much more painful.
Cassie is "wild" and almost ethereal with pale hair and a tiny pre-pubescent appearance even after she's reached puberty and been judged a slut by her classmates. In addition to the differences between the young women, Messud paints a portrait of two very different homes: Julia's parents are somewhat bumbling white upper middle class with certain expectations for their children. Cassie's father is dead and her mother a blousy hospice nurse who finds love at Bible study.
The highlight of the novel is a summer when the girls are both eleven. Cassie is injured and can't swim in the local quarry or do any of the regular things they like to do. They must find other ways to entertain themselves in the long hot afternoons. Most small towns have rumors and stories built around abandoned buildings and Messud's fictional Roylston, Massachusetts is no different. Cassie and Julia find their way to the town's abandoned asylum, once the estate of a wealthy man and later a home to women judged mentally unfit. The metaphor isn't lost and feeds into Messud's broader themes of society's misogyny and the physical and mental vulnerability of young women.
In their afternoons at the abandoned asylum Julia and Cassie build stories, creating a magical world of their own in the ruin of dust, empty rooms, and broken chandeliers. There is a darkness in the ruins though that foreshadows the tragic events to follow. Always there is the threat of discovery and the threat of male presence: the grizzled caretaker who rumbles around in his old pickup with his half-blind German shepherd and the graffiti, empty bottles, and cigarette butts left by high school boys partying on the grounds. But the girls' secret holds all summer becoming a memory for Julia to cling to as her friendship with Cassie slips away.
As school starts again the girls drift apart: Julia is in honors classes, Cassie goes to parties and dates Julia's long time crush. Rumors about Cassie's wild behavior leave Julia torn between faithfulness to her one-time best friend and a need to fit in with her new crowd. It all sounds very mainstream YA fiction but Messud's hand is deft, there is more at stake here than schoolgirl friendship. Messud is teaching us a lesson: there are certain plot developments we expect from a story about girls gone bad, the bad girl is expected to end badly: abandoned, raped, or dead. It's a brutal lesson but one that we need to learn.
When Cassie spirals out of control and we learn there is "something wrong" with the attention paid her by her mother's new boyfriend, we assume the worst. When Cassie becomes convinced that her real father is still alive and disappears in a search for him, we assume the worst. The race to the end of the novel as Julia enlists the help of the caretaker to find Cassie before it is too late leads us to assume the worst. But Messud won't let us off so easily: this is a novel about the stories we tell about young women as much as it is about the young women themselves. We expect violence to be enacted on the bodies of young women who stray, we expect young women who rebel against stepfathers to be suffering sexual abuse, and we expect young women who refuse to conform, who fight back against parental, school, and peer expectations to be punished severely. These are the narratives we read and watch in books and on TV all the time. And while there is a terrible moment at the end of this novel, it is not what is expected and that is a part of what makes Messud such a masterful writer: she writes real women and she refuses to let the reader off the hook.