Claire Messud’s new novel The Burning Girl is a coming-of-age story about two friends whose friendship collapses as they reach adolescence. But if you think you know how the story ends, or what to expect, think again. Messud’s gorgeously wrought sentences take readers through a story that defies conventional trappings and even denies them the comforts of story—and this is precisely what Messud intended.
“It has always preoccupied me,” Messud explains. “On the one hand you think you know someone, on the other you’re told things, unexpected stories—how do you square these things together? And how much of how we ever understand anyone is just us making it up?”
We meet our protagonist Julia Robinson as she begins to unpack the collapse of a relationship with her childhood friend, Cassie Burnes. Messud’s grip on the insecurities of adolescence and the sheer beauty of her sentences—“I plunged off the rocks without even dipping in a toe. The smooth cool of it came as a total surprise to my body, a shock, and my swift stroke across the breadth of the quarry made my nerves tingle like sparklers.”—provide momentum for the novel even when its plot resists expectation.
Messud, whose daughter is 16, has now witnessed the trials of adolescence from a third-party point of view, as well as maintaining vivid memories of her own: “It’s an almost palimpsest experience, of having my own experiences and then seeing a younger generation’s experiences with a different eye or a different perspective of years later,” Messud explains. “That was a big part of where the story came from.”
But chief among the observations Messud has noted as her daughter has grown is how little some things change. The Burning Girl is set in the present day, and it’s clear that Messud possesses a literacy in the social media habits that define all of us now, but particularly our younger generations. But it’s also clear that she has a grip on the universal emotions that move and motivate us. “It’s like reading Shakespeare,” Messud says. “You read Othello; jealousy hasn’t changed. All the ways in which these emotions manifest themselves or how they happen may be different, and in some cases are more dramatic sometimes because of how the world is now, but I think emotionally it [coming of age] felt so, so familiar.”
And coming of age, to Messud, is no less than the beginning of our habit of filling in the blanks about what we don’t know about people with what we think we do: friendships shift at that age because of this change. As a child, Messud remembers befriending a young girl in the French countryside at a swimming pool one afternoon, spending hours together without speaking at all. “You didn’t need language,” she says. “And then it all changes: at 14 I can’t imagine spending three hours with someone without saying a word.”
This habit, of course, is both permanent and pervasive, and the novel skillfully asks the question: how well can we really know ourselves and others? “We do use stories to simplify and clarify and make meaning, when in reality maybe there is none,” Messud says. And believing the stories we craft in our own head, she says, is dangerous—“it enables us to live in some sort of fantasy.” The fact that Messud’s novel doesn’t provide tidy answers interrupts that fantasy for her readers.
“My aim is to write a contemporary fable of girls’ adolescence,” Messud says, “and anytime you’re dealing with archetypes, you’re running the risk of stereotypes.” But she also wasn’t afraid to frustrate narrative expectation, something she says is “very important” to her: “We are making up stories and we think we know how stories go. As soon as you say ‘I had this friend in middle school and she got kind of slutty,’ I think I know what happens next. But maybe we don’t know.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer living in Austin. Her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review and Parcel, among others. Find her on Twitter @jaimenetzer.