Middle School is Just So Messy: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Originally published October 2017

Do you remember the first time you let a friend talk you into a bad idea?

It’s an adolescent rite of passage – making the wrong choice. For some, it’s a momentary thrill, followed by waves of panic that you’ll get caught, and then bathing in the guilt that’s left behind when the day is done. You are no longer innocent. There’s a black mark on your behavior chart, even if you are the only one who can see it. The weight from just a few rebellious acts is all you can carry, the straight and narrow is the best you can navigate from that point on.

For others though, that first bad decision is like a drug that leaves you wanting more. The power that comes from hanging with the popular crowd, for example, leaves you shaking off the remnants of your innocence, shrugging the better angels that were once your friends off you shoulder, no longer able to whisper in your ear.

The third in an accidental series of teen girl friendships gone bad novels, Claire Messud’s “The Burning Girl” is eerily reminiscent of all those relationships we had in our innocent, if not downright naïve, middle and high school years.

Like “History of Wolves” and “Marlena,” the book’s protagonist is a young and sometimes misguided girl, tempted to rebel while staying in the somewhat safe constraints of a family unit.
Julia, or Juju, is best friends with Cassie and has been since their early elementary days when she was the first and only person to approach and welcome her as a new student at the school. Like peas and carrots, Forrest Gump would say – Cassie and Julia went everywhere and did everything together, from lazy summer days in the neighbors’ pool to volunteering at the animal shelter. Best. Of. Friends.

Then comes middle school. (As I type that, I realize it sounds like I could be talking about a”Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book. Nope. Not at all.)

For me, middle school was the hardest time of my life, but maybe my bravest, too. I have some vague recollection of competing in forensics, performing in a lunatic version of a show choir and I even tried running for class treasurer (this is funny now on so many levels, for so many reasons) – so for some brief amount of time, even if public performances may have been as scary to me then as it is to me now, at least I tried it. I had a good group of friends and we played Dungeons and Dragons at lunch. We were a strange bunch, but we didn’t care. And then came eighth grade, when one of my very best friends did to me what Cassie does to Juju. She changed without asking.

So yeah, this book touched a nerve.

It wasn’t just that Cassie lost her father when she was still a toddler, or that Juju had such a hard time processing Cassie’s rejection. It was the detail with which Messud took care to illustrate the cracks in Claire and Juju’s relationship, and ultimately, its demise. Cassie’s shredded arm at the hands of the dogs she is trying to care for is a metaphor for Juju’s heart, also torn to pieces by the person she only wants to protect and carry through to adulthood safely.

Juju tried to meet Cassie halfway in the quest for teenage rebellion – breaking animal shelter rules, sneaking up to the abandoned asylum – smaller, less heinous acts of aggression. But whereas Juju can’t move off the direction that’s been chosen for her – advanced classes, debate team, theatre camp – Cassie can’t merge into Juju’s lane, either. She’s half as smart, but twice as daring. And when you are in middle school and take the daring (but dumb! DUMB!) path, smart suddenly feels dull.

For sure, readers aren’t meant to take sides in the story of two girls gone different – and it’s likely you’ll feel sad for them both on some level. But for me, the harshest realization comes at the end, when Juju and her mother recognize despite their closeness, neither can truly *know* the other person. Having a 16-year-old daughter myself, it was a shocking reminder that as much as I think I know her, I really don’t. I’m not in her head. I don’t share her thoughts. That can be crushing when you love someone so much you can barely stand it. Do we really know anyone?

The Burning Girl is a really good read that’ll connect with anyone that can relate to middle school angst. And a read that works as both YA and adult fiction.

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