When I first started The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s sixth novel, I felt this sense of anticipation that continued through the whole book, as though every part of the story was only there to serve as an explanation or background for the real, important part.
I guess that makes sense in a way. The bulk of the story takes place while the main characters (including Julia, the narrator) are in grades 7-9. Is there any other time in life that just feels like a transition? Kids already too old to be kids, not quite old enough to feel like full-fledged adolescents. It’s a painful transition, one that Messud tackles gracefully. Julia and her best friend Cassie begin to grow apart only at the outset of puberty, as they develop into their own personalities and mature at different rates, toward different courses of action.
One Halloween, when both girls are in the seventh grade, crystalizes their differences. While Julia assumes the two will go trick-or-treating, Cassie informs her she’s been invited to spend the night watching horror movies at another girl’s house, which turns out to be “a boy-girl party, complete with Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle”, where Cassie also begins a relationship with a boy Julia has a crush on. Julia spends the night handing out candy and seeing her own classmates trick-or-treat at her door. It’s such a stark difference, and Messud takes care to show us Julia’s dual perspectives, answering the door with an air of not caring, while of course caring deeply on the inside.
Most authors tend not to see any emotional complexity in pre-teen girls or young teenage girls. I was worried at first that Messud would fall into the common trap with young girls whose friendship falls apart. One girl becomes the cool, popular, already grown-up while the other stays innocent and kind. And we, the ready, are always meant to sympathize more with the latter, to see her as the sweet Madonna to the former Whore. The latter always wants to stay friends, and the evil ex-best friend can’t wait to pull away.
But things are rarely so simple, and Messud doesn’t want us to think they are either. Julia is initially hurt by Cassie pulling away, but never really makes the effort to really come back together. Instead, she tries to forge her own identity, getting into her own life and new friends, and watching from afar as Cassie does the same. Julia half-heartedly tries to defend Cassie every now and then from various accusations from her friends (Cassie’s a slut, Cassie parties too much), while still privately harboring the same thoughts.
And rather than leave us to wonder about Cassie, Messud instead takes the time to dive into Cassie’s home life, and its many stark differences from Julia’s. Julia is solidly upper-middle class. College is an expectation, not a fantasy. She has a supportive relationship with her parents. She tells her mother everything. Julia has no need to rebel, as she has nothing so terrible to rebel against.
On the other hand, Cassie has a strict, religious mother, whose strictness becomes even more pronounced when she begins a relationship with a man called Anders Shute. Messud never levels any explicit accusations at Shute, but he remains the most shadowy character in the book. By Cassie’s word he never does anything specific. But he seems all too interested in how short Cassie’s skirts are, how late she it out, if she is in a relationship with a boy.
Anders, like a few of the adult men in the book, straddle the line just so, between creepy and concerning. In one scene, Cassie is picked up while walking down a highway late at night by a concerned neighbor. While we never know Cassie’s thoughts at the time, Julia wonders how Cassie must have felt. She had no reason to fear him, but every reason to fear him. Both Julia and Cassie, despite their differences, feel the keen awareness of their own vulnerability, of being a young girl out in the world.
If the Burning Girl, for all the brilliance of Messud’s writing, has any faults, it’s that she occasionally writes heavy-handedly about the dangers lurking for young girls, which feels more like exposition from an adult pretending to write as an adolescent than the actual thoughts of the said adolescent. And yet, perhaps we can overlook this. If Messud discussing how terrifying the world is for young girls is meant to feel like some new revelation, it’s because it is for Julia.