Book review: The Burning Girl

The Burning GirlThis is the third Claire Messud novel I’ve read. I enjoyed her bestselling novel The Emperor’s Children, and her debut novel When the World Was Steady. The Burning Girl is her latest work.

This novel set in small-town Massachusetts follows the lives and friendship of Julia Robinson and Cassie Burns.

Julia and Cassie have grown up together as best friends, feeling more like sisters than neighborhood pals. This close relationship lasts through grade school, but the first fissures begin to form as both girls approach adolescence.

Julia is secure in the support of her middle class family, but for Cassie, who never knew her father, it’s always been mother and daughter alone as a team. Things change when a new boyfriend enters her mother’s life and disturbs the delicate balance in place.

The exact nature of the new household dynamics is never made perfectly clear, but we watch as Cassie’s isolation and anger grow and have an adverse effect on her schoolwork and relationships. Julia is slow to admit their friendship is quickly fading, and we see many moments in which Julia looks back and wonders whether she should have intervened.

As a reader, it was heartbreaking to see Julia’s moments of doubt – through the benefit of hindsight – wondering how she could have handled things differently. Not surprisingly, Julia has a childlike faith in the adults surrounding Cassie – teachers, neighbors, her mother – acting in the young girl’s best interest.

This is a quiet story, but Messud manages to expertly capture adolescent anger and disillusion in these pages, an engaging and well-written coming-of-age story.

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