Messud (The Woman Upstairs, 2013, etc.) investigates the fraught intricacies of friendship and adolescence as two girls grow up and grow apart in a small Massachusetts town.
About to start her senior year of high school, narrator Julia painfully traces the loss of her childhood friend Cassie, a bold rule-breaker who goaded and thrilled cautious Julia even as she relied on her friend’s good sense to keep them safe. During the charmed intimacy of childhood, Julia wistfully recalls, “we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be.” But in seventh grade Cassie drifts away to a more popular crowd, adding insult to injury by dating and then dropping Peter, an older boy she knows Julia likes. With characteristically lucid prose, Messud perfectly captures the agonizing social insecurities of middle school in Julia’s seething assessment that Cassie “thought she could laugh at me to my face…she was Regina George from Mean Girls and I was Janis.” Payback comes when Cassie’s widowed mother, Bev, falls in love with Dr. Anders Shute, who may have an unhealthy interest in Cassie and certainly encourages Bev to confine and control her in ways that lead to a crisis. By this time, Julia has new friends of her own and a more secure social niche in ninth grade; she knows Cassie is in trouble but is too hurt and too invested in her new role—this is very much a book about masks and performances—to respond when Cassie tentatively reaches out. Although their shared past gives Julia the knowledge to forestall disaster when Cassie vanishes, Messud also suggests that we never truly know another, not even those we love best. That stark worldview only slowly becomes apparent in a narrative that for a long time seems more overwrought than events call for (it is, after all, narrated by a teenager), but by the novel’s closing pages it packs an emotional wallop.
Emotionally intense and quietly haunting.