Breaking up with your BFF is a teen’s nightmare
Author still shudders at her own awkward teen moments Entertainment
There’s an old sleepover game played by kids, mostly young girls, based on a folkloric myth that involves staring in a mirror and reciting “Bloody Mary” three times, in hopes of conjuring a witch-like apparition. (It was recently spoofed on CBC-TV’s hilarious Baroness Von Sketch, involving a bartender and a thirsty patron.)
While the trick usually ends in shrieks, and occasional tears, the thrilling scare of Bloody Mary provides a welcome escape at an age when kids are just becoming aware of dangers in the real world.
Julia, the preteen protagonist of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Burning Girl, has watched enough TV news to understand that young women are often the victims of abductions, rape and murder, but she feels protected in her relationship with Cassie, whom she’s been inseparable from since nursery school. While Julia is cautious and introspective, and physically solid, Cassie is daring yet deceivingly frail, the smallest girl in school, with white-blond hair and translucent skin.
But as the BFFs enter adolescence, the two drift apart as Cassie abandons make-believe forest games for teen parties and boyfriends, leaving Julia despondent and clinging to the friendship’s remains. When Cassie’s life takes a dangerous turn, Julia remains a loyal defender, and ultimately her saviour.
Messud admits she has never left the memories of her own adolescence far behind. Even at 50, as an acclaimed novelist and Harvard professor, she can still recall embarrassing moments from her early years.
“Maybe I’m letting go of some of it,” she says, “but the shame was still so present, all those years later. It’s deep.”
Messud was born in Connecticut, but as a youth lived in Australia for several years before moving to Toronto, and then back to Connecticut again.
“I experienced childhood as you land in a new place, you learn a new language. You learn the codes, what to do,” she says.
“I was always running to catch up to have the knowledge to fit in.”
As her own two children entered their teen years, Messud found herself reliving that potent age once again, and remembering the great intensity of emotion attached to, in particular, adolescent girls’ friendships. “I have been witness to those travails all over again, and living through that time from a different perspective, and seeing it with distance,” she says. “It brought back all sorts of memories of my own experiences.”
While remembrances of adolescent angst and drama formed much of her characters’ behaviour, it was her own childhood literature that inspired her decision to write The Burning Girl as a fable-like story about a fleeting moment in a young girl’s life.
“There’s a certain passion that one has for children’s books and fables and Greek myths. I feel the same way when I read them at 50 or 45, as I did when I was 10,” she says. “I wanted to try to write something that you just experience the way you experience life, and the way you experience a story when you’re a kid. A kids’ book for grownups.” Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.