The Burning Girl by Claire Messud published in 2017.
“Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship.”
I think the vast majority of young girls, myself included, have experienced a relationship similar to Julia and Cassie’s. It’s a horrid, unavoidable part of growing up.
I found myself relating a bit too much to the main character, Julia. It begins with her looking back at a close friendship with Cassie Burnes, the girl with the fluorescent blonde hair and stick like figure. The girls seem to be the definition of opposites attract; Cassie is crass and adventurous, while Julia is careful and anxious. Slowly, as they entered middle school, they began to drift apart. Cassie became apart of the party crowd while Julia veered more towards an academic lifestyle. Julia was desperately trying to hold on to their childhood friendship, but Cassie seemed ready to move on. The factor of family issues is also heavy on Cassie’s side, a possible explanation for abandoning her friendship with Julia.
I may be biased, but I really enjoyed this book because of how much I related to Julia. I found myself continuing to read only to see if our emotions would continue to match up. In every broken friendship, there is usually one friend that does the distancing and one friend that is left lonely and confused by it all. Both me and Julia were the latter friend. Desperately trying to hold on to whatever little bond you have left, and even after it all still subtly keeping tabs on the person that left you behind. In fact. this is basically how the entire story is presented; the telling of Cassie’s story through the distant eye of Julia.
This connection I had with Julia may have been the only thing I liked about the book. The rest of the characters were somewhat flat, only placed in the story to advance the plot. Take Peter, for example, the childhood crush of Julia that ended up falling in love with Cassie. Since Cassie was no longer speaking to Julia, she vented all her issues on to Peter, who then went on to tell Julia (unbeknown to Cassie I’m guessing). This is literally the only way Julia knew about anything happening in Cassie’s life, through a game of telephone played by Cassie to Peter to Julia. He could have been completely removed from the story and replaced by another random messager between Julia and Cassie and I wouldn’t have cared.
I also found the ending interesting. It circled back quite nicely to the beginning since the whole book is just Julia reminiscing about her time with Cassie. The first few lines of the novel are as follow:
“You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed.”
Meanwhile, the end of the book focuses on Cassie recently moving away, so essentially, the beginning of the book is later than the end of the book.
Most of the time, I wouldn’t like it if a novel ended with many unanswered questions, but in this case, I don’t mind it. These frustrating questions stay true to real life, because when you drift away from a person these questions aren’t answered, and they aren’t answered for Julia either. Is Cassie okay? Where did they end up moving? Did she discover the truth with her father? Does her relationship with her mother continue to dissolve or strengthen due to her vulnerability? We as readers will never know, but neither will Julia. Yet the last paragraph consists of Julia doing the same thing a reader might do, coming up with viable answers to her questions. Again, this character is proving to be the most relatable person ever.
The only word I can think of to sum up this story is tragic. The death of a friendship is a heartbreakingly cruel part of life, and The Burning Girl demonstrates it rather eloquently. I would recommend every young woman to read this so they can either reflect on the friendships they lost, or cherish the friends they’ve kept.