Sunday, September 3, 2017

Book Review: "The Burning Girl" by Claire Messud

The friendships we form when we are younger often have a profound effect on our lives, even into adulthood. And although I can't speak from experience, it's often been said that female friendships, particularly those forged during adolescence and the teenage years, can be tremendously intense, providing special memories and, in some cases, inflicting emotional pain.

Cassie and Julia have been friends for as long as they can remember—since nursery school. They've always been an inseparable part of each other's lives, and have shared their secrets, fears, desires, and dreams. The summer before seventh grade they spend volunteering at the local animal shelter, hiking in the woods outside their small Massachusetts town, and secretly visiting the abandoned asylum in the woods, imagining the lives of those imprisoned there.

But little by little, things change between Cassie and Julia that summer, and into the school year that followed, when the two are assigned to different academic levels, and Cassie makes new friends who encourage her to act in a more rebellious manner, and develop relationships with boys. Julia feels the loss of Cassie palpably and can't seem to figure out what went wrong, wishing that things could return to how they were before.

"It's a different story depending on where you start: 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. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren't anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backward."

Even though they barely speak, Julia keeps tabs on Cassie through a mutual friend. She learns that Cassie's relationship with her mother has become tenuous since her mother found a boyfriend, a man who makes Cassie tremendously uncomfortable in her own home and who convinces her mother to become even more restrictive of Cassie's freedoms. And as her home life continues to deteriorate, Cassie leans on the one thing she has always depended on, the memories of her dead father, and even that doesn't provide the security it once did.

The Burning Girl is more than the exploration of how intensely an adolescent friendship can affect us throughout our lives, but it also is a reflection on how well we can truly know a person we have grown up and shared so much with. At the same time, this book shows the sometimes painful realization between daydreams and realities, and reminds us that sometimes we need to be saved even if we don't want to be.

While I like the way Claire Messud writes (and I'm a big fan of a number of her earlier books, including When the World Was Steady, The Last Life, and The Emperor's Children), this book really didn't wow me. I feel that this story has been told many times before.

I'm never particularly enamored of when crucial events in a book are relayed third-hand, that the protagonist told one person, who told the narrator, who then shared what they had learned. It often made me wonder whether the story was actually reliable, or whether there were threads I should doubt. I also tend to get frustrated when a book's plot is advanced more by conjecture and assumption than actually witnessing events taking place.

There are powerful moments of longing, emotion, and betrayal in The Burning Girl, but they weren't quite enough to generate a lot of passion. I also was thankful that Messud avoided taking the plot in one direction I feared she might.

Perhaps the fact that I never quite had a friendship like this (and I'm not a female) might have dulled the book's power for me, so if this sounds intriguing, I'd encourage you to pick this book up.

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