The Burning Girl

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The Burning Girl
256 pages; W.W. Norton & Company
In The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s stirring sixth novel, high schooler Julia broods over the collapse of her closest friendship. Like a jilted lover, she’s still trying to understand why Cassie, whom she’d considered a secret sister, ghosted her in junior high. As this obsession crystallizes, Julia reexamines each detail of their attachment, including their final escapade: breaking into an abandoned women’s asylum.

As is often true in Messud’s work, the roots of disquiet grow out of a conflicted attitude toward being female. Brainy and observant, Julia perceives womanhood as a “poisoned cloak.” “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” she reflects bitterly.

In Messud’s last novel, The Woman Upstairs, her protagonist built dioramas of famous women’s living spaces (Emily Dickinson, Edie Sedgwick)—sites of both creativity and entrapment. Likewise here, the asylum serves as a stage set where Julia and Cassie imagine the madness of its past inhabitants, “crazy girls...with their hair sticking up anyhow and wild eyes.” Although a touchstone moment of reversal takes place between the two in this eerie building, afterward nothing is the same. Julia is left wondering why, and her uncertainty intensifies her sense of alienation. Without Cassie, she loses the groundwork supporting her own identity. And how do you repair a house if the foundation has vanished? This is the novel’s central question; Messud probes not only the fragility of friendship, but also a young woman’s ability to know what she means when she says, “This is what it’s like to be me.”
— Liesl Schillinger