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…
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