I take Wasserman’s sensational novel as a dark exploration through the wilderness of wicked thoughts and fantasies. Three teenage girls consume the world around them as they try to get inside the squalid postcard image of their lives. Set between 1991 and 1992 and alternating between the voices of Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain, Girls on Fire is a story of murder, loyalty, and who not to love. New girl Lacey is beautiful and grunge-like. In love with the music of Kurt Cobain, Lacey has a rough gaze and a twisted heart that craves love and happiness.
Hannah (who later changes her name to Dex at Lacey’s insistence) is in awe of Lacey, taking care to foster all of her attentions.
They are united in their distain of fellow classmate, Nikki Drummond, a “spit-shined princess” who floats down the halls of Battle Creek High on “a cloud of adoration.” There’s never any doubt that Nikki inhabits an “essence of bitch” and severely commands the world around her.
With the sudden death of her boyfriend, Craig Ellison, Dex and Lacey are willing to expose Nikki’s protestations over Craig’s assumed suicide while also encouraging the rumors she was cheating on him.
Outrageous Lacey--with her stripper’s name and her trucker’s wardrobe, “all flannel shirts and combat boots"--is all too willing to add fuel to the fire, this reckless girl who Dex thinks of as her new best friend. There’s a fierceness to Lacey that defies attack, enabling Dex to disconnect from her suburban grief and feel something she’s never had. Despite the evident distain of her mother, Dex
(at first relatively innocently) falls into an unfamiliar pattern, destroying her reputation and later, in a much more sinister fashion, falling
deeper in with Lacey, eventually allowing herself to be manipulated by Machiavellian Nikki: “For Lacey I could be a girl who made their own and it seemed like she knew or was conjuring a new me into existence.”
While the mystery behind Craig’s death is the centerpiece of the book’s plot, Girls on Fire is less about the events surrounding his sudden and violent demise and more about the power of Dex and Lacey’s bonds of sisterhood. When Dex and Lacey finally take their unthinkable revenge on Nikki, the reader has already seen the many subtle ways in which the girls play their game. While death seems to transform Craig into a martyr, Nikki briefly acquires an aura of sainthood, “becoming more fully Nikki.” Dex and Lacey form their club, rapidly setting about dissecting the evil exploits of their shared enemy. For years Dex has hated Nikki on principle, but after an incident
where Nikki disrespects her, Dex hates her in “concrete particulars” that Lacey is all too eager to help her pursue. Gathering enough ammunition for a full-frontal assault,
the girls set about exposing the true nature of Nikki’s rotting heart.
Wassermann punctuates her novel with hard-to-read scenes as she unfurls the subversive secret between Nikki and Lacey. This is where Lacey’s capacity for revenge is exposed in a violent showdown. Attempting to ambush Lacey’s wildness and fury, while straddling both sides of a growing emotional crevasse, Dex finds herself unexpectedly drawn to Nikki, seduced by her promise of a drunken party and the assurances of acceptance into Nikki’s elite crowd. Lacey constantly tests her friend‘s mettle in a landscape where it is
sometimes hard to tell the difference between game and truth: “Kurt was real and so were we: Dex and Lacey, sacred ground.”
Wasserman throws everything at the wall in her powerful exploration of female eroticism and teenage angst, three girls obsessed with rebellion and image and the selectiveness of their position in the small, dead-end Pennsylvania town of Battle Creek. Lacey’s fervent, mysterious hatred of Nikki, the unprompted tears for “Neanderthal” meathead Craig, Lacey’s drunken mother
(hobbled with lies from the past), the inappropriate connection between Lacey and Dex’s father, Jimmy, the unsaid words that snag in Dex’s throat, the
intimations that Craig was perhaps cheating on Nikki with Lacey--all are displayed in an elaborate blur of blood, devil worship, and alcohol and drug-fueled exchanges. In the midst of all this, Lacey and Dex make a sacred promise, a blood oath confession: to shake off their suburban shackles, to bury their sins, and swallow their pent-up guilt.
In beautiful, lyrical prose, the real truth behind Craig’s death is finally revealed when one
of the girls is in danger of becoming collateral damage. In this story of cutthroat one-upmanship, danger lurks as love buzzes around a sacred place with its dead trains and its ghosts, “a chaos engine to drive us all into the impossible.” Difficult to put down until the final page is turned, Girls on Fire is a wild rollercoaster ride in which sweaty, bruised Dex is forced to make a terrible choice that finally enables her to follow in Lacey’s tormented, tortured wake.