In her interview of Claire Messud for the New York Times, Ruth Franklin identified the writer as the “one of the foremost chroniclers of women’s hidden appetites.” Just as in her slow building tale of shocking exposure in The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud uses her character’s yearning as a focal point, and turns tedium into introspective terror in The Burning Girl.
This story involves the relationship between two girls – best friends as they are growing up – until they are not. In the interview Messud mentions her inspiration for her premise, the unraveling of a friendship not long after her family moved from Toronto to Sydney. “I’m not talking to you,” a close friend told her one day. “Why?” Messud asked. “You know why,” the girl replied.
In the novel, the narrator, Julia, notes “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.” It happened to me, and I saw it happen to one of my daughters. Messud told the interviewer she viewed “the ending of a friendship as a universal rite of passage,” and she effectively uses the disconnect between Julia and Cassie in her novel.
More than the estrangement of the two friends is Messud’s handling of their differences that eventually causes them to see each other differently. “As if I’d been holding an apple and thinking it was a tennis ball…” As young girls, Julia and Cassie play and have adventures. By middle school, Julia is clearly destined for a better life. Her grades are better, she is tapped for the speech team, her parents send her to drama camp in the summer. Cassie, whose single parent works late hours as a hospice nurse, finds make-up and boyfriends, works summer jobs, and is disinterested in making the grade in school. When her mother finds a boyfriend who moves into their house, her life changes dramatically.
Their friendship suffers and Cassie finds a new best friend. Her unhappy home life leads her to look for her real father, only a name to her, declared dead by her mother. She finds his name on the internet and decides to confront him – another piece from Messud’s real life. Messud cites a friend who did just that with dire consequences. When Cassie disappears, Julia knows where to find her when she remembers their old childhood secret haunts, but the discovery is not welcomed.
Just as in the ending of The Woman Upstairs, the ending of The Burning Girl leaves the reader with more to think about than a tidy conclusion. Julia’s life seems to be on a trajectory for success, but Cassie’s life is in question. What will happen to her? Will she continue to want more for her life or be beaten down by circumstances? In her interview, Messud says her work offers space for women to be “appetitive,” to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more…”sometimes…they manage to find ways to get what they want.”
In the interview Messud cites her favorite British fairy tale – “Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep.” In the story, Elsie saves the day by skipping with a magic rope – as an old woman, she’s still skipping. Maybe Cassie will have that – maybe we’ll all have that magic – to keep skipping, no matter what bumps come along in life…and for young girls – that burning fire in the belly to want more.
Review: The Woman Upstairs