Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Burning Girl

What comes between childhood friendship and adult reality is adolescence, a time of emotional intensity for most, when the closest bonds can start to fray. And so it is for Cassie and Julia in The Burning Girl, an intense coming-of-age tale by Claire Messud, published by W.W. Norton.


YOU’D THINK it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed. But still, I can’t lie in the sun on the boulders at the quarry’s edge, or dangle my toes in the cold, clear water, or hear the other girls singing, without being aware the whole time that Cassie is gone. And then I want to say something—but you can’t, you know. It’s like she never existed.

So either I don’t go out there in the first place, or I end up coming straight home, dropping my bike on the back lawn with its wheels still spinning, and banging the screen door so loudly that my mother startles each time, and bustles through to the kitchen and looks at me, her eyes filled with emotions that I glimpse one after the other—love, fear, frustration, disappointment, but love, mostly. She usually says only one word—“Thirsty?”—with a question mark, and that word is the bridge from there to here, and I either say “Yep” or “Nope” and she either pours me water from the jug in the fridge or she doesn’t. We take it from there, we move on.

In this way the days pass and will keep passing—wasn’t it Cassie

Author Claire Messud. / Photo by Andersen Ulf.

herself who used to say, “It’s all just a question of time passing”?—and we’ll get to the end of this summer, the way we got to the end of the last one, the way we got through all that happened over two years ago now. Each day puts a little more distance between now and then, so I can believe—I have to believe—that someday I’ll look back and “then” will be a speck on the horizon.

It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren’t anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backward.

There’s no beginning “before,” though: Cassie and I met at nursery school, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her, when I didn’t pick her sleek white head out of a crowd and know exactly where she was in a room, and think of her, some ways, as mine. Cassie was tiny, with bones like a bird. She was always the smallest girl in the class, and the span of her ankle was the span of my wrist. She had shiny, white-blond hair, almost albino she was so fair, her skin translucent and a little pink. But you’d be wrong to mistake her size and pallor for frailty. All you had to do was to look into her eyes—still blue eyes that turned gray in dark weather, like the water in the quarry—and you could see that she was tough. Strong, I guess, is a better word. Although of course in the end she wasn’t strong enough. But even when we were small, she had a quality about her, a what-the-hell, an “I’m not chicken, are you?” sort of way.

According to my mother, and to Cassie’s mother, Bev, Cassie and I became friends in the second week of nursery when we were four years old. That was always the story, though I can’t tell now whether I remember it, or have just been told so many times that I invented the memory. I was playing with a group of kids in the sandbox, and Cassie stood in the middle of the playground, hands at her sides like a zombie, staring at everything, not apparently nervous, but totally detached. I left my friends to come touch her elbow, and I said—so I was told—“Hey, come build a castle with me?” And she broke into that rare, broad smile of hers, a famous smile, made all the better when she was bigger by the Georgia Jagger gap between her front teeth. She came with me back to the sandbox. “And that,” my mother always said, “was that.”

When you’re in nursery school, you don’t think too much about it. Both only children, we said that the other was the sister we never had. Nobody could mistake us for blood relations—I was as tall for my age and as big-boned as Cassie was small, and my hair is dark and curly. But we shared our blue eyes. “Look at our eyes,” we’d say, “we’re secret sisters.”

I knew her house and her bedroom as well as I knew my own. Cassie lived with her mother on a dead-end side road off Route 29 at the entrance to town, in a newish subdivision built in the ’90s, when the economy was good. A perfect little Cape house on the outside, it looked as though it had been picked up from somewhere else and plopped on its modest plot of land: a white house with red shutters, dormer windows, a long, sloping dark roof, and a careful skirt of lawn out front, a little skimpy and each year more weedy, until it was more crabgrass and clover than lawn, and a funny white picket fence, just a U of fence, with a gate at the front walk, but it didn’t go all the way around the house—an ornamental fence, I guess you’d call it. Just beyond the fence and behind the house spread nature unadulterated, rampant Queen Anne’s lace and maple saplings, eager acacias and elders reaching for the sky, and beyond this first wildness, the dark northeastern forest, not twenty feet from the back of the house, a constant reminder that the trees and hawks and deer and bears—we saw a mother and her cubs on the tarmac of the cul-de-sac one time, on their way to check out the garbage cans—had been there long before humans showed up, and would surely be there long after.

The word that comes to mind is “encroaching”: it felt like the forest was encroaching on the Burneses’ house, although in truth of course it was the other way around: the developers had made humans encroach upon nature. Houses stood on either side of the Burneses’, bigger models than theirs, plain cedar shingles rather than white, surrounded by swollen hungry bushes. The family on one side, the Aucoins, kept two German shepherds, often outside, that terrified us when we were small. Cassie always claimed one of the Aucoins’ houseguests had had a hole bitten out of his butt by the bitch, Lottie, but this couldn’t have been right, I realize now, or the Aucoins would’ve had to have Lottie put down. Cassie liked a good story, and it wasn’t so important that it be strictly true.

Cassie’s mother, Bev, was a nurse, but not a regular nurse in a hospital. She worked in hospice care and every day she drove in her burgundy Civic full of files and equipment to the homes of the dying, to make sure they were comfortable, or as comfortable as they could be. My father, who isn’t religious—who won’t even go to church at Christmas with my mother and me—said that Bev did “God’s work.”

Bev was always cheerful—or almost always, except when she wasn’t—and matter-of-fact about her job. Devoutly Christian, she didn’t get teary about her clients dying—she always said “passing”—and she spoke as though she was helping them to prepare for a mysterious but possibly amazing trip, rather than helping them to prepare for a hole in the ground.

Bev had big, soft breasts and a broad behind. She wore long, flowy printed skirts that swirled when she walked. Only her delicate hands and feet reminded me of Cassie. Bev’s greatest vanity was her hands: her fingernails were always perfectly manicured, oval and filed and painted pretty colors like hard candies. That and her hair, a sweet- smelling honey-colored cloud. When you hugged Bev, you smelled her hair.

My mother was not at all like Bev, just as my house is not at all like Cassie’s. And I have a father, and in that sense we were always different. For a long time, Cassie liked being at our house because she could pretend that we really were secret sisters, that my family was her family too.

—Claire Messud

Excerpted from The Burning Girl © 2017 by Claire Messud. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. All rights reserved.

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