Capturing the idiomatic contours of an adolescent voice, in a serious novel, is notoriously difficult business. When an author gets it right, as did Mark Twain in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Margaret Atwood in sections of “Cat’s Eye” or Mark Haddon in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the payoff is outsize. These books are rarities.
Messud’s narrator is Julia, reserved and sensitive. Her best friend since nursery school is Cassie, who burns hot and has a “Georgia Jagger gap between her front teeth.” You don’t have to be an admirer of Les Blank’s fond documentary “Gap-Toothed Women” to know that the space between Cassie’s teeth marks her as an unruly spirit.
This pairing is a familiar one. To put it in the terms of “My So-Called Life,” that magnificent television series, Julia is Angela Chase (Claire Danes), who emits a calm glow, while Cassie is Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), the mischievous one, stewing at home with her single mother.
The contrasting status cues pile up. Julia’s mother reads The New Yorker; Cassie’s mother drives a burgundy Civic to her Bible group. Julia will someday go to a good college; Cassie will remain in the fictional small town, Royston, Mass., where both were born.
Yet these girls are “secret sisters”; they are “umbilically linked and inseparable.” They have great adventures, which include regularly breaking into an abandoned mental asylum in woods outside of town.
Out there they make up stories and play roles. Julia calls this period “the most unlikely, vivid experience of our lives up till then, and like a dream — a dream, miraculously, that Cassie and I dreamed in tandem, touching, hearing, and feeling together.”
Julia and Cassie take each other seriously, in a manner that reminds me of a striking observation in Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye”: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”
Cassie’s life begins to unravel when her mother allows a strange and suspiciously devout man to move into their house. Cassie is increasingly criticized and grounded; her short skirts confiscated; her browser history scanned; her kind first boyfriend chased away. She begins to run away from home.
Worse, from Julia’s perspective, she begins to find new friends. Cassie was the ivy, Julia the oak: the fixed point. The ivy decides it can prosper elsewhere.
Messud writes with insight about how female friendships dissolve, and about things like how terrifying certain stray glimpses of adult life can be.
But “The Burning Girl” is an oddly distant novel. Its tone is formal and ultimately unconvincing. “I too was newly aware of the aloneness of each of us,” Julia says about her relationship with her mother, “of how little of our selves and lives was shared, even as we shared rooms and hours and conversation.”
It’s instructive to compare “The Burning Girl” with Messud’s potent second novel, “The Last Life” (1999), which was also about a teenage girl and a fractured friendship. In that earlier novel, Messud filtered the story though her protagonist’s adult consciousness. This allowed complicating irony to seep in, alongside a richness of observation. There were lines you could prick your fingers on.
About the narrator’s mother, for example, we read in that earlier novel: “Something in her face, in the shape of her head or the way that she held it, gave away her foreignness, the way a transvestite is betrayed by her wrists or the line of her back.” It’s impossible to imagine such a sentence in “The Burning Girl.”
If you’ve not read “The Last Life,” I recommend it. In “The Burning Girl,” the mental atmosphere is cautious and limited. “Some subtlety,” Iris Murdoch wrote in a letter, “can be so voluptuous.” Some subtlety is merely quiet and subdued.
This is the first of Messud’s novels that didn’t, on a regular basis, flood my veins with pleasure. It’s the first Messud novel I might have, if I could have, put down before the end. It’s a common book by an uncommon writer.
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