Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship. The Burning Girl is a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about youth and friendship, and straddles, expertly, childhood’s imaginary worlds and painful adult reality—crafting a true, immediate portrait of female adolescence.
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 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.