Her story of a childhood friendship, recounted in the voice of a girl of 16 or 17, does not demonise adulthood or dismiss maturity as valueless; but neither does it say that growing up is going to help much. These children are not merciless judges of their parents, or vice versa. There is a good deal of sympathetic understanding on both sides. The problem, perhaps, is not so much power misused by adults against the helpless as a general powerlessness ... There is a lot of grief in this novel. I resist novelists who want to take me on a guilt trip and at first I thought that’s what Messud was doing, but I was wrong. Her novel is, rather, a kind of ceremony of mourning ...Painful as it may be, this is a hard book to stop reading. Messud is a story teller: the ability to compel and hold the reader’s interest may not be the crown and summit of the art of novel-writing, but it’s the beginning and the end of it. And despite some rather self-conscious passages and improbabilities of voice, the story rewards the reader right through to the end.
Messud is an absolute master storyteller and bafflingly good writer ... It is that combination of imagination and skill that makes The Burning Girl exceptional, more so than the story itself, which sometimes veers into the ordinary and unexamined ... The Burning Girl is at its best when it amplifies that subtle, piercing shift between Cassie and Julia, made brighter by passages of sheer splendorous prose.
The Burning Girl is a story about stories — their power, necessity and inevitable artifice. What does it matter if the tale of how Julia and Cassie met is Julia’s own recollection or her mother’s memory grafted onto hers? Both, Messud suggests, are destined to be equally false ... In a bravura section later in the book, Messud describes a particularly awful rite of passage for teenage girls — accepting a ride from a not-quite-stranger, only to be terrified by what didn’t happen ... Messud, always an interesting novelist, a writer who crafts superb sentences, sometimes has trouble ceding the novel’s voice to Julia. Yes, Julia is a star debater and an 'A' student, but I wasn’t persuaded that she could form and express these ideas so elegantly, even within the stylized artifice of a novel that’s calling out stylized artifice. The Burning Girl is a Lifetime movie of a novel, one that argues that the inchoate pain caused by a friendship’s end is the story. As someone who doesn’t use 'Lifetime movie' as a pejorative term, I consider this high praise. But don’t overlook one salient tendency in this age-old tale: The beautiful girl may get the guy, but the smart girl gets the last word. This may make her the most unreliable narrator of all.
After the fierce complexity of The Woman Upstairs, Messud presents a more concentrated, no less emotionally intense novel about an adhesively close friendship ... Messud’s entrancing, gorgeously incisive coming-of-age drama astutely tracks the sharpening perceptions of an exceptionally eloquent young woman navigating heartbreak and regret and realizing that one can never fathom 'the wild, unknowable interior lives' of others, not even someone you love ... [her] exquisitely realized young characters and their tough initiations into adolescence are captivating and profound.
If you remember the fevered fury of The Woman Upstairs, you’ll be surprised by the muted, reflective voice of The Burning Girl. Julia views her adolescence through a scrim of remorse. It’s also a shock to learn that she’s supposedly a junior in high school; she sounds 35. The plot, despite its thriller gloss, seems captured in amber, cloudy and still. Julia keeps turning over events, trying to comprehend the end of her 'defining friendship,' the failure of her own compassion. 'Everybody wanted a story,' Julia says, 'a story with an arc, with motives and a climax and a resolution.' If The Burning Girl demonstrates anything, it’s that the sorrows of adolescence don’t fit that familiar archetype.
...there’s a void in The Burning Girl. That void is the absent sound of Messud’s sophisticated and unfettered voice. This novel is small and soft, pensive and diffident. It sneaks in, and out again, as if on cat’s paws. In composing it from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, the author underwrites so thoroughly that she mostly blots out her own sun. Her virtuosity is in retreat. We burn our retinas on a self-eclipse ... Messud writes with insight about how female friendships dissolve, and about things like how terrifying certain stray glimpses of adult life can be. But The Burning Girl is an oddly distant novel. Its tone is formal and ultimately unconvincing ... This is the first of Messud’s novels that didn’t, on a regular basis, flood my veins with pleasure. It’s the first Messud novel I might have, if I could have, put down before the end. It’s a common book by an uncommon writer.
The Burning Girl reads like an updated Gothic tale — in part, because it has so many of the traditional trappings of the genre (a decaying mansion, an evil guardian, ghosts) and, in part, because it's a novel about the friendship between two adolescent girls — and what life journey could be more Gothic than the passage through adolescence? ... Because Messud is such a precise and restrained writer, the girls' haunted summer walking tour remains credible, as well as evocative ... this is a novel that's made distinct by its mood more than its story. The climax here melds together the mundane griefs and cruelties of adolescence with the eerie atmosphere of those dark woods and that asylum. Like most of Messud's other novels, The Burning Girl deeply excavates the subject of female loneliness. Growing up female, as Julia tells us, may indeed have something to do with learning to be afraid, but in writing on the difficult topics of abandonment, betrayal and isolation, Messud herself is fearless.
Ms. Messud is at her most incisive in exploring the volatile transition from childhood to adolescence, 'a world of adult actions and of adult conjecture' ... [Cassie] makes for a very poignant character—rough, rebellious and nakedly vulnerable, giving the best of her love to someone who can’t return it ... Why, then, does the novel lack the careening intensity of The Woman Upstairs? The problems are mostly technical. Julia recounts Cassie’s tale two years after the fact, as she, Julia, enters her senior year of high school, but her narrative voice sounds too filtered and elegant to come from a 17-year-old, even one who stars on her school’s speech team ... Cassie is the sort of girl who sails toward the face of the storm. The novel stays in safe harbor, straining to keep her in sight.
All this is the stuff of many, many novels about young women, and readers will need to be somewhat patient as the author constructs Julia’s narrative voice — one with authority, yet almost no understanding. Julia knows how this story will end but remains a callow adolescent ... The Burning Girl asks us to look hard at what we imagine about others and their lives before we take action or profess friendship. It’s an unflinching examination of how little we can do to save anyone else.
...[a] haunting and elegant novel ... Messud dissects and displays for us what it means to inhabit a female body in 21st-century America. Julia begins to feel her new womanhood as a form of slow imprisonment ... Here is a parable in which growing up a girl is a treacherous business. Messud is magnificent on female fury, as she demonstrated in The Woman Upstairs, an exquisite study of a more sinister friendship. Though Julia herself has not yet learned to be angry, The Burning Girl is an astute, subtle novel that conceals an eloquent and clear-eyed rage simmering beneath its surface — rage against the limitations imposed on young women by society, by social class, by sex, and by the ever-present threat of violence against them for which they are still taught to take responsibility.
Messud has said that she means The Burning Girl to be 'a children’s book for grown-ups,' and you can glimpse wisps of that intention in its pages. But in novels like The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children, her prose is powerful and sleek, whisking the reader into the world she’s made and carrying us right along. The Burning Girl has none of that velocity or ease. The trouble is a basic one, which isn’t to say that avoiding it should have been easy. Messud has created a narrator who doesn’t sound remotely as if she’s in high school ... the combined failures of voice make Julia an unreliable narrator in the most fundamental sense: We don’t believe in her existence. As we try to follow her into the story she’s telling, we keep knocking up against reminders of that.
Messud masterfully portrays Julia’s mounting dismay at her friend’s choices and the events they set in motion, as the girls are carried far from a time 'when we could never have imagined coming unstuck.' For all the suspense Messud sustains after a desperate Cassie recklessly digs too deeply for the truth about her father’s death, the poignant depiction of the girls’ estrangement—fueled by their inevitable path toward adulthood—is an equally compelling reason to read this haunting novel.
Messud shines a tender gaze on her protagonists and sustains an elegiac tone as she conveys the volatile emotions of adolescent behavior and the dawning of female vulnerability. Julia voices the novel’s leitmotif: that everyone’s life is essentially a mysterious story, distorted by myths. Although it reverberates with astute insights, in some ways this simple tale is less ambitious but more heartfelt than Messud’s previous work. The Emperor’s Children was a many-charactered, satiric study of Ivy League–educated, entitled young people making it in New York. The Woman Upstairs was a clever, audacious portrayal of an untrustworthy protagonist. Informed by the same sophisticated intelligence and elegant prose, but gaining new poignant depths, this novel is haunting and emotionally gripping.
With characteristically lucid prose, Messud perfectly captures the agonizing social insecurities of middle school ... 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.