Book Review

The Burning Girl


Up front, please know that I did not care for Ms. Messud’s last book, The Woman Upstairs.   I actually stopped reading when I was three-quarters of the way through, simply didn’t feel the characters to be riveting, and when an earlier book of hers, The Emperor’s Children, was reissued, I passed on it.  Then, last week, along came her new one, The Burning Girl.  Since it was well-reviewed, I gave it a shot.

The promotional material alluded to the bond of best friends, two girls who clicked in nursery school and shared everything until adolescence tore them apart.  But I ran into trouble right at the start, because I never quite understood the connection between these two girls.  I get that they were opposites – good girl versus bad girl, conservative girl versus daring girl, yin and yang perhaps.  But I never bought into their attraction to each other.  Yes, they both had blue eyes, and yes, they talked of being secret sisters, but I still don’t understand why.  Their drifting apart in adolescence made far more sense to me than their attraction.

Oh, there were nice moments, like when the author described another girl in their class, an evil one, as looking out of the corner of her eye like Sophia Vergara watching in a show that only she could see.  Or the moment when Missud describes a man whose clothes looked like they’d been clipped on, like clothes on a paper doll, always slightly askew.

But moments here and there were all I got here.  The whole of the book didn’t work for me.  As a chronicle of the agony of growing up, there was nothing new.  Lots of other writers have done the same in a manner every bit as skilled.  Yes, Ms. Messud’s prose is straight forward, clean, and easy to read (or listen to, as was the case).  But brilliant?  I didn’t see that.

I felt particularly let down by the ending.  What was intended to be a dramatic plot twist wasn’t dramatic at all, and what happened afterward was even more of a letdown.  Worst, I felt that the author spent the last pages trying to add meaning to something whose meaning was negligible.

As with Tom Perrotta in Mrs. Fletcher, an author this highly acclaimed suffers from inflated expectations.  Perhaps without the hype, I might have liked this book more.

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