A certain power dynamic between close friends — tilted by slight differences of class, beauty, and charisma so as to cast one friend, watchfully, in the wings — has been in recent literary vogue. Readers of The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s latest, may be reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet or Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends or even HBO’s Doll & Em. One friend creates a world; the other friend must be content to merely live in it. It’s not some facile dynamic dreamt up by pop culture, though; it comes straight and hot from real life. Anybody who has ever idolized a friend will recognize it.
The Burning Girl is told from the perspective of Julia: wary and sensitive, the product of parents who listen to NPR, send her to therapy, and effortfully discuss politics at the dinner table. Her best friend, Cassie, spirited and proud, is raised by an overworked single mother who is “plump, geeky, intensely loving” — and totally pliable to the Bible-thumping boyfriend she contracts halfway through the novel. The girls become friends, and foils to each other, the second week of nursery school. They stick together, blue-eyed “secret sisters,” inventing worlds that transport them away from Royston, a small, fictional town in Massachusetts.
As preteens, during what twelve-year-old Julia describes as “the summer of my stars-and-stripes bikini,” the two girls venture to an abandoned asylum on the edge of town, where they create a shared, deeply textured imaginative landscape. Messud’s language registers most richly when describing these moments of transport. “To be in that ruin with Cassie,” Messud writes, as Julia, “it was such a particular feeling I have had nowhere else. If ever I have it again, I will recognize it, like a long-lost scent, and that afternoon and the ones that followed will return to me, in all their visceral intensity.” The afternoons exploring the asylum cast a kind of spell across the girls’ friendship, which begins to take the shape of a fairy tale (an evil stepfather; a magical escape; a cursed journey).
Messud has written five previous novels, all polished social dramas that orbit the psychic mores of adulthood. The Emperor’s Children (2006), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, focused on three New Yorkers in the months leading up to 9-11; The Woman Upstairs (2013) detailed the artistic awakening of a schoolteacher. Her books are worlds unto themselves, ornamented with clever, resonant detail. When describing adults, like Julia’s middle-class, New Yorker–reading parents, Messud is especially skillful — these are personalities she knows well (Messud’s husband, James Wood, is a critic for the New Yorker).
Personifying a child’s world, though, is tricky territory. Here, the juvenile characters can feel clunkier than the adults. “I’m not a scaredy cat,” Julia says at one point, but the childhood lingo feels unconvincing. Cassie — who, early in the novel, loves a pound dog because “she was beautiful but tough, a survivor” — comes close to a caricature. In plucky-heroine bingo, the outlier is bound to have either a gap tooth or a wildly freckled complexion, a la Anne of Green Gables, and so the fiery Cassie bears a “Georgia Jagger gap between her front teeth.” Familiar girlhood tropes fill the gaps, you might say, where more complicated children might have existed.
The bond between the two girls begins to wear thin in middle school, as Cassie struggles to communicate familial dysfunction to Julia, a child from a happy family who will never quite be able to understand her pain. A spell has been broken. Drifting away, Cassie begins to date Peter, an older boy and the longtime object of Julia’s affection. It’s a classic rupture, and we can feel the betrayal keenly. It’s the kind of wound that’s just as fresh in an adult friendship.
But things are dark at home, and an older boyfriend isn’t the solution to that problem. One day, Cassie walks out of her house and vanishes. The aftermath of that disappearance — her eventual rescue and prodigal return, her struggle to assimilate back into a community that has failed her — is where the story is most interesting. (Messud had a childhood friend that committed suicide; the feeling of circumstances gone wrong, and wildly out of one’s control, sits deep in the novel.)
In Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, a thread remains between her characters Lila and Lenù (it’s impossible to not think of that indelible friendship pairing, and massive literary reference, when reading this book) even when it’s tortured. More realistically, in The Burning Girl, that thread is quietly snipped. We know, after all, what happens when a young girl walks into a dark wood; fairy tales and Law and Order: SVU supply the answer we’re most familiar with: Very Bad Things. But what happens if she is able to walk back out into a world that will never feel the same? A longer novel might have lived in that question. The agonizing dailiness of living with a severed friendship is ultimately more interesting than the mechanics of the severing itself.
Still, it’s a book full of many worthy questions. The loss of a childhood friendship, one that tells you true and important things about yourself — things that you cannot relearn in adulthood — is poignant, deeply felt material. By and large, Messud invokes it deftly. “Everyone loses a best friend at some point,” assures Julia’s wise, credible mother. We believe her, but we sure wish we didn’t.
The Burning Girl
By Claire Messud
W. W. Norton & Company