Only two years have passed and Cassie is gone, leaving Julia plagued with fear, frustration, disappointment, and love. In a relationship begun when Cassie and Julia were in nursery school, Messud lays out the groundwork
for complicated family dynamics and dark secrets--not only for Cassie and for Julia but also for Cassie’s mother, Bev, a hospice care nurse and a devout Christian who spends her days driving to the homes of the dying. Julia can’t remember a time when she didn’t know Cassie,
a tough and strong girl who lives on a dead-end side road of Route 10, the forest
encroaching on her ramshackle house.
In The Burning Girl, Messud concerns herself with parents, children, and what else might constitute a family, for good or for ill. There are charismatic men and vulnerable women, including Julia’s parents (her father is a dentist and her mother a freelance journalist). Julia waxes lyrical over that first wonderful summer when she wore her stars-and-stripes bikini and Cassie slept over and they volunteered at the local animal shelter. Julia wants to be a vet or a pop star or even a writer; Cassie confides that she loves fashion and thinks that Lady Gaga is really cool: “the crazy shoes; that dress made out of meat!” Amid the bedlam of the stinking, barking dogs and the cute homeless cats, Julia and Cassie are joined by an invisible thread, “umbilically linked and inseparable.”
“If only I could go back and write it all down: the secrets we told each other, and the plans we made.” Julia’s astute observations will become even more significant for her best friend’s changing circumstances. Cassie is delivered to the brink of tragedy when Bev falls in love with Anders Shute, a fellow devotee from her
Bible study group. When Anders moves into their home and attempts to steal away Bev’s love and attention for Cassie, she silently confesses to Julia that she wants no part of his life or Bev's, who seems to be prepared to sacrifice her own daughter for a man whom Julia thinks has a sinister interest in controlling Cassie.
How Cassie reacts to Shute’s arrival lingers throughout Messud’s novel. Cassie’s ultimate solution is to seek
out Clarke, her father secondary to her friendship with Julia, a bond unified by lazy days wondering in the woods and exploring the dilapidated rooms of the derelict Bonnybrook Asylum. From dreams of touching and hearing and feeling the ghosts of the inmates,
the forbidding former institution is darkened by the traces of its past, a history more titillating,
even scary, by its silence: "as if we had one mind and could roam its limits
together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be."
Messud peppers these early chapters with bucolic fairy-tale beauty. In enchanted Bonnybrook, the girls can invent--just the two of them--the best of their imaginary adventures and enjoy laughs over shared stupidities. The two can make anything into what they want it to be. Yet Cassie has a brittle heart and will soon be set adrift by her inadequacies at school and by a mother who ignores her needs.
The presence in her life of her father, who died late one night in an accident on a Boston highway, is as much a myth as “the drowned boy.” Though Cassie never actually knew Clarke, it’s as if he stands behind “a thick black curtain” even after Bev's
thousand retellings about how he died.
As Cassie’s faith in Bev grows shakier, the vague idea of finding Clarke nurtured in her imagination becomes flesh-and-blood reality with unintended consequences. Both girls endure the social struggles, agonies, and embarrassments of puberty, the weight of a world
falling upon them in varying degrees as they finally relinquish childhood “in a cloud of glory.” Their paths, always destined to diverge, simply end up taking their natural course. While Julia prepares for college, Cassie will probably follow in the footsteps of her mother. She even fails at romance, surrendering her boyfriend, Peter, to Julia, who admits that she’s had a
secret crush him.
In a story about the fallible, unreliable human heart, Julia steps through her looking-glass world: “All those years we’d been friends since forever; we’d used the same words that perhaps meant different things.” Julia makes Cassie feel alive in every moment, incandescent, even restless; she’s fuel burning with adolescent energy. She’s fearsome and fractured, rather heroic through no design of her own. As the two girls drift apart, there will be other losses, other regrets. While Messud says a lot about the price of friendship, the actual beating heart of her poetic, beautiful tale is how Cassie and Julia’s innocence seems to break-off and disappear before our eyes.