Women Upstairs: On Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

“My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later,” says Julia, the narrator of Claire Messud’s new novel The Burning Girl; “…everyone loses a best friend at some point.”

Julia is quiet, cautious, and sensitive; her soon-to-be-lost best friend is Cassie, a fragile-looking, “troubled” girl, much more daring and eventually more popular. As Dwight Garner observed in The New York Times, “This pairing is a familiar one”–so many other novels about female friendships, from my favorite YA novel Someone Like You to recent literary phenom My Brilliant Friend, seem to feature the same general contrast. And it seems to be the universal inclination of writers (many of whom are quiet and sensitive) to narrate from the point of view of the less daring, the less dynamic friend—the friend with less story to tell. The narrator then spends so much time looking at her friend, watching her, resisting her stories rather than driving forward her own, that the novel’s center of gravity rests between narrator and friend, rather than centering on the narrator.

Which can be good or bad. In this case, Claire Messud is exploring the nature of stories and self-perception, especially for girls, especially for girls who suffer—girls like Cassie. So the fact that Julia herself is not the subject of gossip and doesn’t attract the kind of cliched stories of “burning girls” that the more troubled Cassie does, is strange, but may make it even more effective. Julia becomes the storyteller, and the de-constructor of stories, empowering her to both tell and then critique the kinds of stories that we tell about girls who suffer, and girls who die.

The story of Cassie never becomes perfectly known to Julia, but the outlines of it are that her mother marries a strict, religious man, and Cassie starts hanging out with another girl named Delia, and eventually she disappears, leaving Julia trying to use their now-tenuous connection to find her.

But Messud spends nearly a third of the book describing the last summer in which they’re friends, one of those summers where the loss of innocence is impending but has not quite arrived. In particular, the girls break into an old asylum, the Bonnybrook, and play pretend, as if they are inmates.

To me this is the most powerful metaphor in the book. After all, people who are inmates of asylums almost by definition lose the power to tell their own stories, or to define their own lives. Their own understanding of their reality is deemed pathological, and it falls to science and society to define reality for them. That Julia and Cassie identify so strongly with these inmates is, I think, a way of wrestling with their own impending womanhood. All genders suffer from psychiatric illness, and all genders have suffered at the hands of psychiatry, but it is an idiosyncrasy of women’s experience in particular that their pain is so often cast as hysterical, as imagined, as psychological. The “crazy girl” is a far more common trope than the burning girl.

Several critics have lamented the toll that maintaining a sorta-kinda adolescent-sounding voice for Julia’s narration took on Messud’s usual intricate, poetry-adjacent prose style. I mostly agree with them, and I found it strangely ironic that Julia, whose powers of observation about the world are so clearly less sensitive than other narrators Messud has written (I’m thinking especially of the heroine of The Last Life, which had some of the most gorgeous prose passages I’ve ever read), speaks of herself as being so perceptive. “My curse is to see things,” she says. And for a twelve-year-old, perhaps she is highly sensitive; but as a literary narrator, she is not particularly so.  I read the book in twenty-four hours, a testament not only to the suspense of the story, but to how light, almost simple, the language is.

But while light, it is far from boring or pedestrian; I think those of us who are disappointed in the style, myself included, are partly just spoiled by how intense a gift Messud actually has. “From there,” she writes of the last summer of the friendship, “the last stretch of the summer unspooled like thread off a bobbin.” What an evocative way to portray in just a few words how quickly and smoothly fall approaches after a summer that seemed far from over a moment ago.

And whether or not the prose is as powerful as it could be, the book does have a strange power. I see it as a rich counterpoint, almost a prequel, to The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s previous novel, a portrait of raw feminist anger from the point of view of Nora, a thwarted, almost-middle-aged woman. (It got poor reviews, which I think was in many ways just because it came a couple years too early. It would, I think, have received a better reading from critics if it had come after some of the recent conversations about patriarchy and social justice that have been boiling fiercely in society for the past few years–if critics had been more prepared to look past their own dislike of the character to appreciate what the book was doing.) I can imagine Julia growing up to be the woman upstairs—the one who did everything right, went to college, respected her parents, cared for others, and avoided becoming one of the cautionary tales. Someday she may wake up and realize that, like Nora, she has allowed life to pass her by. Then, perhaps, her anger will burn like Nora’s does, and she too will be a burning girl.

 

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