STARRED REVIEW
September 2017

Innocence lost

By Claire Messud

Julia Robinson and Cassie Burnes are best friends, enjoying a carefree life on the cusp of adolescence in Royston, a sleepy town in the North Shore of Massachusetts. The unsettling changes that upend their placid existence are the subject of The Burning Girl, veteran novelist Claire Messud’s penetrating psychological thriller about “what it means to be a girl growing up.”

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Julia Robinson and Cassie Burnes are best friends, enjoying a carefree life on the cusp of adolescence in Royston, a sleepy town in the North Shore of Massachusetts. The unsettling changes that upend their placid existence are the subject of The Burning Girl, veteran novelist Claire Messud’s penetrating psychological thriller about “what it means to be a girl growing up.”

Julia and Cassie spend the summer before seventh grade exploring the environs of Royston, in excursions that take them to a posh country estate turned long-abandoned women’s mental asylum, among other places. But that idyllic summer—one that’s marred only by a dog bite Cassie sustains at the animal shelter where the girls volunteer—marks a turning point in a relationship in which they’ve been “conjoined all their lives,” as Julia, the novel’s narrator, describes it.

As middle school begins, Cassie falls in with a group of girls led by one whom Julia bitterly nicknames the Evil Morsel. Cassie’s life takes an even darker turn after Anders Shute, the emergency room doctor who cared for her dog bite, begins a relationship with her widowed mother. Are the disturbing changes in Cassie’s behavior—ones that lead her to question what she’s been told about her father’s death in a car accident when she was 11 months old—merely the result of Shute’s strict discipline or something more sinister?

The author of five previous novels, including The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs, 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.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Burning Girl

The Burning Girl

By Claire Messud
Norton
ISBN 9780393635027

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