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The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud

Described by Publishers’ Weekly magazine as “haunting and emotionally gripping,” this short book follows the author’s highly regarded 2006 novel Emperor’s Children, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, as well as her other dazzling novels.

The Burning Girl, narrated in the teenage voice of Julia, is at heart a coming of age novel set in a small town in Massachusetts. Julia and Cassie have been best friends since nursery school, but their friendship flounders in seventh grade.

Julia, who comes from a successful, traditional family, does well in school and surely is college bound. Cassie is raised by a single mother, Bev, a hospice nurse, who invites into her life and their home Dr. Anders Shute. Together, Anders and Bev are overly strict, laying on punishments for the smallest of Cassie’s infractions. Cassie, who has never known her father, feels like she has now lost her mother and gained an imposter father figure.

Cassie becomes interested in boys, and she dabbles in drugs and alcohol, while the more conservative Julia gets good grades and is honored with an invitation to join the high school speech team where she makes more “suitable” friends.

Cassie begins dating Peter, whom Julia has always admired. Cassie also gets increasingly self-involved and engages in more destructive behaviors that she sees as the solution to unhappiness caused by never knowing her father. Cassie then simply disappears, runs away, and it seems no one knows where she has gone. Except Peter, in whom she had confided her dreams. And Julia, who has known her since nursery school.

The Burning Girl is well paced and suspenseful. Different from her previous novels, Publishers Weekly states that “in some ways this simple tale is less ambitious but more heartfelt than Messud’s previous work.”

The author has done a good job telling this emotionally intense story through a teenager’s eyes. I recommend this book for its deep look at female friendship and the complexity of adolescence.

Nancy’s Picks, New Fiction

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