Thursday, August 31, 2017
Review: THE BURNING GIRL, by Claire Messud
The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud. Published 2017 by WW Norton. Literary Fiction
It's too bad that this book, a consummate literary beach book, is coming out now, as summer is coming to end.
The Burning Girl is a novel by Claire Messud, author of the much-lauded The Emperor's Children and somewhat controversial The Woman Upstairs; when the latter was released, Messud did an interview defending her choice of an angry, unlikable protagonist: "Well, I think women's anger is unacceptable. We live in a culture that wants to put a redemptive face on everything, so anger doesn't sit well with any of us. But I think women's anger sits less well than anything else. Women's anger is very scary to people, and to no one more than to other women, who think my goodness, if I let the lid off, where would we be?"
In The Burning Girl, the angry girl, Cassie, is held at a distance and we see her only through the eyes of her friend Julia. The two girls are both only children, though Cassie's family is fractured and Julia's more traditional; they have known each other since they were little and are inseparable as the book opens.
Cassie and Julia start the summer volunteering at an animal shelter; Cassie is bitten by a dog and the ER doctor who treats her, a taciturn loner, ends up in a relationship with Cassie's needy mother. Things go downhill from here. Anders Shute, the doctor, is a difficult step-parent, and Cassie's image of her long lost father may or may not be a fantasy. And the girls, as different as they are similar, drift apart as growing up does its inevitable work.
The Burning Girl reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, another sharp novel about growing up and the delicate friendship of girls. It would also be a good follow-up for readers of Elena Ferrante. I think The Burning Girl will make a wonderful book club selection; largely character-driven, there's a lot to talk about. It's beautifully written and will appeal to readers looking to maybe recapture a piece of their girlhood, or just those looking for a thoughtful and moving exploration of the fragility of youth.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.