Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Book Review: Girls on Fire

Robin Wasserman, author of some of my young adult favorites including The Book of Blood and Shadow and The Waking Dark, released her first adult novel this week, and while her previous books were very good, Girls on Fire is breathtakingly great. I just opened my copy to find a quote from the first pages for you and can barely bear to pick one.

Impossible not to see them, not to remember what it was like, when it was like that. To sit there, shivering, as the sun dips toward the horizon and the wind blows cold over the waves, as the sky blazes red and darkness gathers around the girls, neither of them knowing how little time they have left before the fire goes out.

Remember how good it felt to burn.

As that quote suggests, the main characters here, as in Wasserman's YA novels, are teenagers for the bulk of the narrative, but in this case the narrator - and reader - is looking back at these experiences from an adult perspective. And from the lyrical first chapter with the all-important "there's always one in charge" on, Wasserman writes some of the most realistic descriptions of all the flavors of intense, complicated dynamics between adolescent girls I've ever read. Friendships, relationships, frenemy-ships, jealousy, love, hatred, rivalry - it's all here, and it feels like this book is telling all of our old secrets, and then taking them to a new level with gigantic stakes.

Most of the novel is set in the early nineties; the characters are a few years older than me, but close enough in age that their world and cultural touchpoints felt both comfortingly and scarily familiar. Who among us wasn't wearing flannel and doing pagan rituals in the woods? (I'm not, however, as familiar with the music - mostly Kurt Cobain - that plays a large part in the story; I should see if Wasserman has put together a playlist.) Wasserman perfectly captures the changes taking place both in her characters' small community and the culture at large; this intense specificity of setting plays very well against the universality of her characters' emotions and the teen girl experience she describes.

There's a central mystery here, too, the death of a classmate before the action starts, along with a palpable feeling from the beginning that the characters - and reader - are hurtling toward another terrible event. There are twists and terrible secrets gradually unraveled, but unlike in many high-profile psychological thrillers like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, the twists didn't annoy me because they felt vital to the story and to the characters themselves, rather than reading as a careful puzzle constructed to convince the reader of the author's intellectual dominance. (Which is not to say that Wasserman is not smarter than all of us. I know her - full disclosure - and she is.)

But for me, the mystery, as compelling as it was, was both secondary to and made frightening by Wasserman's perfect portrayal of the power of teen girl friendship. Because what's so fascinating and wonderful and terrifying here is not that the things that are done by and done to these girls are foreign and unique, but that it's all too easy to imagine that with a few different casual decisions and chances of fate, any of us could have wound up exactly where they do.

1 comment:

  1. I just listened to her LargeHearted Boy playlist yesterday: