Top Shelf: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

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by Melissa

It’s rare to find a book that accurately depicts the friendships between young girls the way Claire Messud does in The Burning Girl. Nothing is more important than your best friend when you are young. I specifically remember feeling like no one would understand and appreciate me more than my absolute best friend when I was in elementary school. And that is what this story is all about. That bond between two young best friends, the ways in which they change as they become older, and how sometimes they end for reasons you will never truly understand.

Julia and Cassie have been close friends since nursery school. They know each other better than they know themselves. At least that’s what Julia thought. After a summer filled with imagination and time spent breaking rules, which brought them closer together than ever, Julia and Cassie find themselves becoming separated. They begin junior high, a typical time for friends to start losing one another, but to Julia it is clear that most of the distancing is on Cassie’s end.

Cassie comes from a one parent home (her father died when she was incredibly young), while Julia has lived her whole life with both of her parents, never feeling the instability that has surrounded Cassie all her life. As the school year starts, Julia can feel Cassie pulling away from her. They don’t have similar classes and the only time they see each other at school is when one of their mothers is picking them up at the end of the day. They each begin to find new friends and drift further and further away from one another. But Julia always feels like Cassie is her best friend, no matter how much time goes by and what others say about Cassie.

When Cassie’s mother begins to date a new man, Cassie is not happy about it. She tells Julia that this man gives her the creeps and that she doesn’t trust him, especially not with the mother she was always close to. Cassie is never clear about what is going on in her home, but she is being treated differently by her mother, and the home she has always known is changing. First, Julia feels for her friend, knowing it can’t be easy going through these changes. But when Cassie starts to act strange, Julia begins to fear for her.

Julia’s mother and other friends can’t understand her need to help Cassie, but Julia can’t stop feeling that she is responsible for Cassie, and that she may be the only one who can help. Julia knows that Cassie is in danger, but is it because of the people in her life or because of herself?

A literary mystery, The Burning Girl is haunting and beautifully written. It asks many questions about human nature and explores the question of how well we can ever truly know the people we are closest to. Even down to the last sentence, you’ll wonder if you really know your closest friend.

The Burning Girl is haunting and beautifully written…down to the last sentence, you’ll wonder if you really know your closest friend.

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