I received this book free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Published by Harper on May 17th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Coming-of-Age
On Halloween, 1991, a popular high school basketball star ventures into the woods near Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, and disappears. Three days later, he’s found with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand—a discovery that sends tremors through this conservative community, already unnerved by growing rumors of Satanic worship in the region.
In the wake of this incident, bright but lonely Hannah Dexter is befriended by Lacey Champlain, a dark-eyed, Cobain-worshiping bad influence in lip gloss and Doc Martens. The charismatic, seductive Lacey forges a fast, intimate bond with the impressionable Dex, making her over in her own image and unleashing a fierce defiance that neither girl expected. But as Lacey gradually lures Dex away from her safe life into a feverish spiral of obsession, rebellion, and ever greater risk, an unwelcome figure appears on the horizon—and Lacey’s secret history collides with Dex’s worst nightmare.
Like The Virgin Suicides or the novels of Elena Ferrante, Girls on Fire stalks the treacherous territory between girlhood and adulthood. By turns a shocking story of love and violence and an addictive portrait of the intoxication of female friendship, set against the unsettled backdrop of a town gripped by moral panic, it is an unflinching and unforgettable snapshot of girlhood: girls lost and found, girls strong and weak, girls who burn bright and brighter—and some who flicker away.
‘Origin stories are irrelevant. Nothing matters less than how you were born. What matters is how you die, and how you live. We live for each other, so anything that got us to that point must have been right.’
Girls on Fire left me incredibly conflicted and I sat on my review for several weeks hoping that time would help elucidate my feelings. (It did not. Yet here I am.) Girls on Fire consists of the types of teenagers of a Megan Abbott novel; Dare Me is the one that immediately comes to mind. These teenagers are not the teenagers of a Sarah Dessen novel. They are crude and vulgar, whose actions go well beyond shocking and insulting. I was constantly bouncing back and forth between being impressed by their brazenness and appalled by their impudence. It was a bit exhausting.
‘I loved it. Loved it like Shakespearean sonnets and Hallmark cards and all that shit, like I wanted to buy it flowers and light it candles and fuck it gently with a chainsaw.’
Girls on Fire is set in the early 90s when Nirvana was at the top and Real World was everyone’s obsession. A small town in Pennsylvania is horrified after the supposed suicide of the town jock, Craig Ellison. No one thinks he could have done it but the evidence clearly proves otherwise. While the story begins with Craig’s death, and is constantly affected by it, the girls are center stage. Hannah Dexter is diffident and Lacey Champlain is fearless, so when Lacey takes “Dex” under her wing, their relationship becomes increasingly virulent the more time the duo spend together. Nikki Drummond is the requisite “mean girl” of the school and Lacey and Dex’s whole relationship is based off their shared hatred of her.
The writing was opulent and whenever the story lost me slightly in its meanderings, the writing always kept me enticed. The story though, there was something excessive and tiresome about the way these young women were written. Something superfluous about their actions and their demeanor in general. The relationship between Lacey and Dex was intense and so very exorbitant. It wasn’t that the writing didn’t properly portray their relationship with one another, but rather it was written with such detail that you became a part of them and a part of their relationship. The whole thing was distasteful and depleting and something that you definitely did not want to be a part of.
It’s a coming of age tale, about the metamorphose that, especially in individuals so young, can undergo because of the lives they’re forced to lead and the people they choose to surround themselves with. Bit by bit, each girls story unfolds and I once again found myself torn between how exactly I should be feeling. Despite my wavering opinion and low rating, this was certainly an audacious story to tell and is likely a very accurate portrayal (if a bit extreme) of female relationships and all the dark niches that are rarely exposed.
‘What matters isn’t how we found each other, Dex, or why. It’s that we did, and what happened next. Smash the right two particles together in the right way and you get a bomb. That’s us, Dex. Accidental fusion.’