The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl smolders with the nostalgia of a frayed preteen friendship bracelet: this transportive novel spans the formative summers of Julia and Cassie, two best friends who drift apart as high school and adulthood looms in the distance. Messud’s prose elevates what could have been an after-school special into the realm of fine literature: The Burning Girl teems with wistful empathy as its buried memories are illuminated with forlorn maturity.
“It’s a different story depending on where you start,” Julia says. “Who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are.” The Burning Girl is full of these disarmingly subtle lines that showcase an underlying wisdom throughout Julia’s narration. Although her and Cassie’s story is full of young girls being girls, Messud gracefully navigates the familiarity (and occasional pettiness) of that age by focusing on their nascent struggle with identity — a question of whether to build from one’s already-established individuality or to start anew. To be yourself or re-invent.
The Burning Girl is set it Royston, Massachusetts, “the kind of small town that people escape to from Boston or Portland, bringing their small children and their fantasies, only to find that village life isn’t as simple as they’d expected.” The novel open with Julia and Cassie’s last summer as friends: like an oft-told urban legend, they dare each other to explore the shuttered women’s asylum by the quarry and find an imaginative wonderland there instead. Cassie sees it not a scary place but a hopeful one, and “When she put it that way,” Julia recalls, “I suddenly understood.”
The mansion looked different, no longer a house of sorrows or a hideout for drunk hockey players from the high school… I could see it: the Bonnybrook as a magical place we could invent, the two of us, and have as ours, the way we’d thought of it before I saw it, a stage for our best imaginary adventures….Like we had the power — Cassie and I, the two of us, twelve years old — to make anything into what we wanted it to be.
That fall, Julia and Cassie begin to drift apart. They get placed in different classes, adopt different extracurriculars, and find difficulty spending time together. But as Julia moves towards theater camp, debate club, and the sort of lifestyle that would fast-track a smart girl towards college, Cassie turns inward, seething over her creepy new stepdad and privately ruminating on the whereabouts of her biological father. Cassie floats in with the mean girls, and does everything she can to disappear.
What’s most powerful about The Burning Girl is the limitation of Julia’s narrative: her story is understandably full of feeling but limited by her first-hand experiences. She can’t know what motivated Cassie during the last few years of their friendship, or what may or may not have happened behind closed doors, but she infers and invites readers to do the same. Messud’s readers, inherently familiar with the anxieties of growing up, can complete Cassie’s story, and, like Julia says early in the novel, make sense of who we think Cassie is.
Reflecting on the Bonnybrook women’s asylum, Julia describes “a particular feeling that I have had nowhere else.” “If ever I have it again,” she says, “I will recognize it, like a long-lost scent, and that afternoon and the ones that followed will return to me, in all their visceral intensity.” The Burning Girl captures a similar, familiar intensity, capable of transporting readers backwards towards a time of formative uncertainty: the distant notes of childhood looking inward, onward.