Adolescence is hard on everyone, but particularly for young girls transitioning into the role of a woman. Everything changes for them, expectations of who they should be, how they should act, who they should hang out with, it all dramatically shifts. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud captures this shift wonderfully and uses an extreme case to highlight distancing friendships and growing up. Messud takes growing from girls to young women seriously, which is refreshing.
While the plot may sound simple, it shows the intricacies of growing up, and makes this novel complex. The loss of innocence is a topic that writers often write about. It’s traumatic at times, it can be sad to lose, maybe you look back and still mourn that moment that you knew everything changed. Messud is able to capture all these thoughts and emotions accurately without being sentimental.
Cassie and Julia have been friends since they were babies. Growing up, you never see one without the other. On the surface, these two girls are very different. Cassie has an adventurous spirit that sometimes can be out of control. She lives with her mother who is a hospice worker and is often left to her own devices. Julia is more cautious. She often is the voice of reason between the two so they don’t get hurt or in trouble. She lives with both her parents who foster her intelligence and studiousness. Both girls tend to hang out more at Julia’s than Cassie’s home. Their relationship can be summed up by this quote:
“… she pretended to be the young lady of the manor, and I was her suitor… I was a psycho… she was my long-lost sister, and she sat beside me and held my hand… We’d done the Greek myths in school that year, so we knew the basics, and we acted out some of those too. She was Jocasta; I, Oedipus. I was Agamemnon; she, Clytemnestra. She, Hercules to my Deianeira.”
Cassie plays all the good parts, and Julia falls behind to let her shine. With the Greek myths, Julia is the one that falls into tragedy. This play pretend will become perfect foreshadowing for the future of these two girls. They try to find the asylum that is rumored to be near the quarry that they hang out at. When they find it, it seems like their friendship is cemented in that moment. A secret they share together.
But all good things come to an end, and in seventh grade they started going on different paths. Cassie makes friends with a new crowd, while Julia waits on the sidelines. Julia sees changes in Cassie; they don’t connect anymore. Julia becomes an observer of Cassie. She watches as Cassie dates the boy she likes, watches as that boy wants to be Cassie’s savior, and watches Cassie’s downhill spiral. Cassie goes missing twice. The first time, she returns in a couple days. The second time, though, people are worried because she took off with nothing and seems to have vanished. She’s not well: she’s tired and hungry, and reality seems to be slipping from Cassie. Those make-believe games they played as kids are becoming real to her. This time, though, Cassie becomes the victim and Julia has to play the hero. Julia wakes from sleep with a premonition.
“We were playing a game, the kind of pretend game that we’d play for years: You be the monster, I’ll be the knight. You be the pilot, I’ll be the Resistance fighter. You be the fugitive, and I’ll find you… Cassie, with her white-blond hair, put on a black feather cloak— a bird cloak, a Nancy cloak— that promised to hide her, fugitive, wizard, teenage girl, and to enable her to fly. Only, within seconds, it burned into her skin, grafted itself, became exquisitely, agonizingly irremovable. Hers was poisoned… and there was nothing I could do but stand there and watch, a reluctant but unwavering witness.”
When Julia does find her, Cassie is in the abandoned asylum. The last place she felt happy; conveniently, the last place of Julia and Cassie’s friendship being pure and unaffected by adolescence. But everything is different now. They are young adults, one finding the other in a dire health situation. There is no girlish giggling, only shock and rage as the girls’ eyes meet for the last time. Messud illustrates these differences heartbreakingly well.
Julia becomes the Greek hero Cassandra, the one who sees the future but no one believes her. She saw her friend in there, looking for help but no one believed her. No one believed that maybe something was wrong at Cassie’s household, that maybe she was trying to escape something. She even begins to disbelieve herself, leaving Cassie behind as she forges her own path. But ultimately, Julia finally believes in herself and becomes a more solid as a young adult thanks to Cassie. While Cassie and Julia’s friendship deteriorates, it highlights the importance of female friendship. Messud will make you feel deeply for these girls while keeping you in suspense about their fates.
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