‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud tells the story of Julia Robinson and her friendship with Cassie Burnes during their childhood growing up in the small Massachusetts town of Royston. After meeting at nursery, they are inseparable throughout school but looking back years later, Julia remembers the circumstances which led to them drifting apart.
It is inevitable that any literary fiction about the nuances of female friendship in late childhood will now be compared to My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, particularly when one character is dominant and outgoing (Lila/Cassie) while the other is awkward, lacks self-confidence and mostly lives in the shadow of their captivating friend (Elena/Julia). Like the first book in the Neapolitan Novels series, ‘The Burning Girl’ looks at the intensity of the complex and subtle power struggles that exist between girls at school but Messud’s fifth novel also focuses more on the often unspoken barriers presented by social class.
Julia and Cassie find that different expectations are placed on them by their peers and teachers based on the perceived circumstances of their home life and this divide is ultimately what separates them later in life, particularly when they develop different interests and they can no longer bond over make-believe worlds in the way that they did as children. Julia is from a stable family with educated and supportive parents whereas Cassie is a disaffected student and doesn’t get on with her mother’s sinister new partner, Dr. Anders Shute. Although Julia and Cassie’s friendship doesn’t end as explosively as the title and cover design suggests (it’s more of a slow-burn that fizzles out on its own), there is still a palpable sense of dread and injustice as the story approaches its sad conclusion when Cassie attempts to track down the man she believes is her supposedly dead father.
In a recent interview in the Guardian, Messud said: “In the last few years I have come to feel that maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels, that people won’t have the attention for it.” I don’t share such a pessimistic view of the appetites of future generations for complex narratives but the well-drawn characters of Julia and Cassie certainly sustained my interest and Messud is just as perceptive about early adolescence in ‘The Burning Girl’ as she is about women approaching middle age in her memorable rage-fest of a novel The Woman Upstairs.
Many thanks to Little Brown Book Group for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.