Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl and Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire have a lot more in common than just their fiery titles.
Both are about a pair of teenage girls growing up in small town America. Both are coming of age novels, about a quintessential “good girl” under the influence – liberating or corrupting depending on your point of view – of a “troubled girl”. And both novels are good, not great: one because it never quite achieves lift-off, the other because it veers into unnecessary melodrama.
Messud’s book is the more sober of the two, telling the tale of Julia and Cassie – childhood friends who grow apart as they grow up – with studied realism.
This is the first time I’ve read Messud, a writer with an adoring fanbase. Sadly, I’m no clearer now than I was before on just what drives that adoration. Messud is indeed a fine writer but this is a novel too grounded, too circumscribed, for its own good: confined by the bounds of its own stringent realism. It feels small and insubstantial, and with very little new to say about adolescent friendship.
Wasserman’s novel takes a very different approach.
Set in the grunge-soaked early 1990s, Girls on Fire leans heavily into the angst of that difficult age. Hannah is the good girl here, smitten with the wild Lacey – but Lacey has a dark secret.
The book has literary ambitions but compared to Messud’s more sedate offering it’s trashy junkfood, full of borderline pornographic sex, slut-shaming, suicide, violence and even a healthy dash of satanism. It’s entertaining but lost me in its final third with an over-the-top denouement.
It’s got a lot of Kurt Cobain though, so there’s that.