We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Julia Robinson, the teenaged narrator of Claire Messud’s subtly made fifth novel, isn’t quite precocious enough to quote that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album. She’d recognize the sentiment, however, and I thought of those words in reading the story she has to tell, the one by which this painfully unillusioned girl tries to make her world cohere. It’s the summer before her senior year in high school, and the novel’s determining event is already a few years in her past, far enough back, as the book’s opening sentence allows, that “you’d think it wouldn’t bother me now.” Which simply tells us that it does—though what exactly does that “it” refer to? Not just that as-yet-mysterious event, I think, but maybe also what it’s taught her about the fictive nature of life itself, in which “each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are.”
Whether Julia is The Burning Girl’s title character is an open question. That role more obviously belongs to the appropriately named Cassie Burnes, and the tale the two of them share will depend on how Julia decides to tell it. She could, she says, start out at the “dark end” and do it backwards, or perhaps in the middle, when the two were still best friends, but what she can’t do is begin at the beginning. For Julia cannot remember a time when the two of them did not know each other. They’ve been together since before the start of conscious memory, Julia always tall for her age and big-boned, Cassie fierce and slight and with unmistakable white-blond hair.
The girls live in a small Massachusetts town, somewhere to the north of Boston but too far out to be suburban, a place where children believe that every adult will recognize them and know to whom they belong. Julia’s father is a dentist, her mother a part-time journalist. Cassie’s mother, Bev, is a hospice nurse, but she has never known her father, the victim of a car accident in her earliest days of infancy. Julia enjoys school and does well at it. Cassie doesn’t, but at the point where Julia chooses to begin her narrative—the summer between sixth and seventh grade—those differences haven’t yet started to matter.
The two friends have spent their lives running in and out of each other’s houses: Cassie’s white Cape with its “careful skirt of lawn out front” and a wilderness of Queen Anne’s lace in the back; Julia’s Victorian with the wraparound porch and her father’s office in the barn at the end of the drive. They know the full contents of each other’s rooms, but that summer they are most often at Julia’s, with Bev dropping Cassie off on her way to work. The book’s first pages show them at twelve, listening to Katy Perry and painting each other’s toenails, purposeless endless days of searching for something to do, the kind of boring days that adults describe as idyllic. So they walk to the playground, which at their age is “somehow more depressing than staying home,” or trawl the village variety store, looking, Julia says, for “stuff I could afford with my pocket money…glow-in-the-dark Super Balls and hair clips in the shape of plaster hamburgers.” For a while they volunteer at the local animal shelter. Then Cassie’s daredevil carelessness puts her in the same cage as a pit bull, and a few months later that encounter will lead to something more than a run of stitches down her arm. But for now it is summer still, and the girls eventually find their special place at the town’s old abandoned asylum.
“The sad building loomed enormous,” a nineteenth-century brick monstrosity put up by a Lowell textile magnate and converted after the Depression into a women’s psychiatric hospital euphemistically called the “Bonnybrook.” Long shuttered and empty, it sits hidden in the woods by the town swimming hole, and when the two girls first blaze their way to it Julia imagines that the place still holds the pain “of the women who’d been trapped there, the anorexic teenagers and the young mothers who heard voices.” They break a window, half-believing the warning on the sign outside—Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted—and as they let themselves in Cassie’s face has a kind of “otherworldly look…. A look, if you like, of destiny.” Foreshadowing? More like Julia’s memory imposing a pattern on the past, a teleology dropped over a moment that needn’t have led to anything much.
Once within, the girls find the world of let’s-pretend that, outside, they think they’ve outgrown, a dream they
dreamed in tandem, touching, hearing, and feeling together. The asylum was darkened by the traces of its pasts; made titillating, even scary, by its silences—but made safer too by our sharing it. Being in the Bonnybrook was like being inside both Cassie’s head and my own, as if we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be.
After that they return each day, pacing the building’s corridors and turning on the taps of its long-drained pipes, playing “psycho” and wondering about the reinforced doors on some of the bedrooms. Eventually they find themselves “running and shouting as if we owned the place,” and nobody at all knows where they have gone.
Almost every page in this novel draws attention to its telling. Its suspense-inducing first sentence establishes a note of foreboding, and yet its full burden doesn’t become clear until the book’s last pages. Messud plays no metafictional or self-reflexive tricks, but the book does offer a continuous loop of narrative, and even the most careful reader will want to return to that beginning with the novel’s ending in mind. Fumbling as she explains to her fond dim parents just why she wants to study theater, Julia at seventeen will say she sees all of life as a game of make-believe. Costumes, masks—the stage is merely honest about it, and yet we all take the confusion of the world around us and “funnel it into a simplified narrative, a simple story that we represent as true.”
The Burning Girl seems the kind of book more common in the middle of the twentieth century than it is today: novels written for adults in the first-person voice of a child or adolescent but entirely accessible to readers of their protagonists’ age. You’ll know the ones I mean, school classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, and maybe also A Separate Peace. Messud’s dialogue is probably too close to the way teenagers actually speak to get a place in many classrooms even now, but you could hand this book to a fourteen-year-old with confidence, and then to her parents as well.
Still, there are some differences. John Knowles’s narrator, Gene Forrester, may have his own dark places, but Harper Lee’s Scout and J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield are linked in their stand against a malign adult world, an incomprehensible Jim Crow society on the one hand and a hoard of eternal “phonies” on the other. The Burning Girl has a more sophisticated structure, in its unobtrusive handling of the relation between its narrative voice and Julia’s younger self, and its moral complexities seem greater too. Messud’s children are never innocent, and there are no phonies here, because the stories people tell themselves, as Messud shows, always have an element of invention. Though maybe that is a version of Holden’s experience, only adapted for an age that doesn’t believe in authenticity and puts its faith in performance instead.
Another comparison takes us further. Messud’s typically measured sentences have little in common with the manic comic desperation of Lorrie Moore’s, but her girls do nevertheless remind me of the two in Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994). That earlier pair is a bit older than Messud’s, and the narrator is older yet, an unhappily married woman looking back on a summer of adolescent heat. But they are matched in the intensity of their friendships, and both writers capture the experience, familiar too from Elena Ferrante, of being utterly and entirely involved with another person, so that the world outside becomes a joke and the hours spent together reinforce and redouble each other’s specialness. Not sexually. Indeed Messud is not, as a novelist, terribly interested in the experience of sexual love. Other relationships offer more powerfully determinative questions and problems, a more fully individuating difficulty.
Parents and children, siblings too: that’s where she found the material of her first books, the layered family histories of When the World Was Steady (1994) and The Last Life (1999). But her more recent work has put its emphasis on the elected bonds of friendship, relations made fraught by the question of just how much space they rightfully claim. The Emperor’s Children (2006) gives us a troika of New York–based college buddies, two straight women and a gay man, whose romantic entanglements have neither the weight nor the permanence of the links they made at eighteen. The brilliant bitter comedy of The Woman Upstairs (2013) provides much more, a friendship marked by inequality and obsession alike. The Cambridge schoolteacher Nora Eldridge wants and needs her relationship with Sirena Shahid, an artist visiting from Paris, far more than Sirena needs one with her—Nora wants the other woman’s child, husband, success; wants her foreignness and beauty; wants indeed her very life. She’ll be punished for that; whether or not she deserves it is another question.
That novel begins with a now famous profane rant that does in fact recall Moore’s best prose. The girls in Messud’s new book catch flame in a different way, and Julia can take the full measure of their closeness only in retrospect. Her voice recalls that of Sagesse, the coolly intelligent Franco-American narrator of The Last Life, who grows in the book from her teens to her worldly twenties; though neither of them sounds at all like Nora Eldridge. But they all have a force and presence, a flexibility too, that shows just how commandingly Messud writes in the first person; far more so, I think, than in the third person of the best-selling The Emperor’s Children. Still, one thing here did strike me as off-key. Messud was born in the States but spent much of her early life abroad, and occasional Briticisms wriggle in. Would an untraveled American teenager really describe her runaway friend as having “slept…rough”?
Julia’s parents are white noise, “so fully present in [her] life” that she hardly even notices them. She takes them for granted—she can take them for granted. Cassie’s case is different. She has made a myth of her dead father, of whom she has just one picture, and she misses his never-known presence all the more acutely when her scattered, overworked mother finds a new partner. The man is named Anders Shute, an emergency room doctor, and Bev meets him when he stitches Cassie up after her incident with the pit bull. Later he appears at their church—Bev is devout, Cassie skeptical—and before long he has moved in with them, the two adults telling the girl that they are now “married in the eyes of God.” Shute demands that Cassie see him as her father. She refuses, but he still polices her clothes and music, her homework and her friends. And she cannot shake the crawling sense that he’s gone looking for her mother as a way of finding her.
The girls are in seventh grade by that point, and in a new and larger school that has begun to push them apart. They have different classes and live at a different pace, Julia still childlike and Cassie stepping into a crowd that can’t wait to grow up. She’s becoming the kind of girl other girls talk about, seemingly popular but increasingly isolated, and though Julia worries about her she also feels ignored and discarded. She remains loyal, but she knows less about Cassie’s life each day, and at this point The Burning Girl begins to flush with danger. There are first the dangers of adolescence itself, of learning that part of “what it means to be a girl growing up” is to sense in a new way the body’s vulnerability, the need to be “always alert and aware…. Beware darkness, isolation, the outdoors, unlocked windows.”
But there’s also a kind of peril here for Messud herself, one inherent in any first-person narrative that concentrates on a nonspeaking character. As Julia slowly loses touch with the girl who had been her second self, she also begins to realize how little we can ever know of another soul, another interiority. “Each and every person lives in an unspoken world as full and strange as your own,” an inner world that’s figured here as the Burneses’ small red-shuttered Cape. Julia can’t step inside that house when there’s nobody there to welcome her, can’t enter the rhythms of that unhappy makeshift family or hear what’s said there in private. That’s the book’s formal and thematic constraint, and to step around it Messud has to break point of view.
“Cassie disappeared in early April of ninth grade,” Julia tells us, but she can only piece things together from what she’s told by a boy named Peter in whom Cassie has confided. It’s two troubled years into Shute’s residence in her household—broken curfews, threats and shouting—and the girl sees his unctuous discipline as an attempt to drive her from her own home. In consequence, she’s begun to wonder more and more about her father; she Googles men with his name and feels increasingly confident that Bev hasn’t told her everything. Is he even really dead? Eventually she runs away in search of a new past, a better story than the one she’s been given, and shows up at the door of some other children’s father, a high school football coach in Maine. The tale comes to us thirdhand—Cassie to Peter to Julia—but Messud uses the brusque hostility with which the man is described as speaking to Cassie to leave a shred of uncertainty, as though she might after all be right.
Rumors spread, and fear, but Julia will find Cassie in the end, with the help of a local handyman, this novel’s equivalent of Boo Radley. And Cassie will hate her for it, seeing rescue as a form of betrayal. There are some problems here. Julia recognizes that Cassie’s version of Anders Shute, and the desperate path it puts her on, can’t be the whole truth, but he isn’t presented in the detail his pivotal role demands. We want to know more than the novel’s structure will allow about this man whom Cassie takes as sinister but others merely find awkward. The plot’s resolution will depend, moreover, on Julia’s ability to think her way inside her absent friend, to imagine Cassie’s thoughts as if they were “my own thoughts about her thoughts.” That’s muddy, and at odds with the character’s earlier sense of an inaccessible otherness, as though Messud were trying to have it both ways.
These are something more than cavils, and to me the book’s concluding pages have too many moving parts, as Messud shifts between Cassie’s unfolding story and the lessons Julia draws from it, the part it plays in her own quickening maturation. Nevertheless The Burning Girl as a whole is both piercingly intelligent and emotionally acute, its ambition at odds with its apparently modest scale. The novel’s epigraph comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca,” itself a play on Felicia Hemans’s 1826 poem of the same name, the one that starts “The boy stood on the burning deck.” For Bishop the boy is consumed by a stammering sense of duty that amounts to a kind of passion: “love’s the burning boy.” What then is a burning girl? Oddly enough Messud’s novel is the second recent work of its title. Earlier this year Mary Karr published a poem with that name in which a girl “sat with us in flames/That not all saw or saw but couldn’t say,” suffering in the midst of a world too polite to notice her pain.* It’s unlikely the two writers knew of each other’s choice; still, there’s a consonance in their both arriving at this image of adolescent fire.
Late in the novel Julia wakes from a dream in which she sees Cassie putting on a “black feathered 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, agonizably, irremovable.” That dream will help Julia find her friend. It allows her to step inside Cassie’s story, to sense its narrative logic and see the way it had to go: an image of pain that lets her know what Cassie will do and where she has gone. And she will find a second lesson in that dream as well. That “fronded, feathery blackness” might indeed be deadly, but to grow up she too will have to take the risk of putting its plumage on.
Julia will recognize, by the end of the book, that though she doesn’t and can’t fully know what it’s like to be Cassie, she needs to imagine it all the same. “We invent a world that makes sense,” she says, and fill it with the characters we call people. We pretend we know them, and make believe that it hangs together, that it will all turn out fine—so she tells her mother, knowing it’s not true. By the end of the novel Cassie has moved away and written Julia out of her life. She has burned as noticeably as her white-blond hair. But she’s not the only one here who does.