Book: “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman
Publishing Info: Harper, May 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Girls on Fire tells the story of Hannah and Lacey and their obsessive teenage female friendship so passionately violent it bloodies the very sunset its protagonists insist on riding into, together, at any cost. Opening with a suicide whose aftermath brings good girl Hannah together with the town’s bad girl, Lacey, the two bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.
But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything…
Review: Who here has seen or heard of the movie “Heavenly Creatures”? It’s kind of a noteworthy gem for a number of reasons. The first is that it was one of the break out roles that Kate Winslet had before “Titanic”. It was also one of the movies Peter Jackson made before he took on the “Lord of the Rings” movies. But the third reason is the kicker: it’s also a true story, in which two girls in New Zealand, bolstered forth by their obsessive friendship, kill one of their moms because she didn’t approve of their closeness. And then one of them grew up to be Anne Perry the crime author. I think that “Heavenly Creatures” kind of sets a standard for the ‘dangerous obsessive female friendship’ trope, even if it was a real life occurrence. When I read about “Girls on Fire” I was pretty intrigued. I was hoping that I would find a new rumination on a story that’s been told many times over, from “Heavenly Creatures” to last year’s smash hit “The Girls”. But sadly I found more of the same old, same old.
I think that it’s definitely important to note that “Girls on Fire” does tackle a lot of important questions about what it means to be a teenage girl in American society, and what expectations are thrust upon this group in terms of how to behave and interact with others. Both Lacey and Hannah (or “Dex” as Lacey renames her early in their friendship) are perceived in certain ways by not only their peers and their community, they are perceived in certain ways by their families, the people who are supposed to know them best. This, too, can be said for the bane of their existence, Nikki Drummond, the most popular girl in school who mistreats Hannah and anyone she sees as beneath her. Nikki has facades that she puts on for different people, and while Hannah thinks she knows one side, Lacey knows another one. The perspectives in this book are mainly those of Hannah and Lacey, alternating in sections called ‘Us’. But every once in awhile we’ll get an outside perspective from one of those close to them, under the sections called ‘Them’. I loved how this was set up, as it really reinforced the ‘us vs the world’ mentality that these two obsessed friends shared. I also liked how the structure served to explain just what happened with the popular boy who committed suicide, as it’s pretty clear from the get go that it’s not as cut and dry as it all seems.
But now we get to the crux of the issue, and that is this isn’t a book that I enjoyed much beyond that. “Girls on Fire” didn’t really do anything new in terms of characterization and plotting. Both Hannah and Lacey were pretty two dimensional, even with their perspectives being laid out in the open. Lacey is the bad girl who has the terrible upbringing and just wants to be loved and turns to drugs, alcohol, and Kurt Cobain (as well as dabbling in the most milquetoast of stereotypical Satanism). Hannah is the quiet one who is so mousy that everyone is shocked when she starts to turn darker, and has darker deeper demons than anyone could have imagined. These are character tropes that we’ve seen before, and neither of them went beyond these tried and true depictions. Even the parents were stereotypes of what we imagine parents with kids like these to be. Hannah’s Mom is banal and unassuming and resents that her daughter is branching out into a more interesting realm. Her father is a former wild child who misses his days of being free, and therefore longs for Lacey both sexually and philosophically. And Lacey’s mother is an alcoholic who has married an abusive man. The only character who intrigued me and surpassed my expectations was Nikki, and even then she still ultimately lived up to our basal expectations of what a mean girl is and why a mean girl might be mean. It’s a real shame, because there was some serious potential in all of these girls to examine how our perceptions of them might be undue. But then they really didn’t have much more to say beyond what their main stereotypes were. And the central mystery isn’t really that much of a mystery, in all honesty. You can guess it pretty early on in the unspooling of that particular thread.
I had higher hopes for “Girls on Fire” than the book was able to deliver. If you are interested in a story examining the perils of dangerous girl friendships, just get your hands on “Heavenly Creatures”.
Rating 5: Though the themes are interesting and the perspectives creatively structured, this book wasn’t reinventing the wheel in any way, and it didn’t really bring a new take to a story we’ve heard before.
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