Friday, September 2, 2016

'Girls on Fire': A Vicious, Seductive Look at Mean Girls at Their Worst

Hamlet does not enjoy taking photos with books.
 Our new "office pug" will be joining our family on September 11th.  We can't wait for our new baby! 

"Girls today thought they could do anything.  Girls burned bright, knew what they wanted, imagined they could take it, and it was glorious and it was terrifying." 

It's Labor Day weekend which for many of us marks the last burst of sunshine laziness that we'll revel in before the sky gets dark earlier and then we descend into the gray days of fall through winter.

When you go on your last grasp of summer fun vacations, be sure to take along a page turning book to enjoy while you bask in the September sun.

I devoured Robin Wasserman's first adult novel 'Girls on Fire' which is the latest "It Girl" in a long line of psychologically deranged thrill rides about girls with big issues: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Good Girl - just to name a few of the "Girl" books I have read.

The novel takes place in the early 1990s in Battle Creek, Pennsylvania and centers around three girls: Hannah (who becomes Dex) - a non descript outcast whose loneliness draws her into an obsessive friendship, Lacey - the intriguing, Kurt Cobain worshipping, rebel, new girl, who does what she wants despite an abusive step father who she nicknames "The Bastard" (I kept imagining the girl version of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club), and Nikki - the beyond popular, mean girl that everyone wants to please despite the fact that even her boyfriend's recent suicide hasn't softened her hard edges.

Wasserman's writing is as vicious and seductive as the girls in this book.  She captured my high school experience in the early 90s.  I had friends who worshipped Kurt Cobain.  I ate Snack Wells cookies believing they were good for me.  I thought Kirk Cameron was hot.  I remember mall dates when walking into Express to buy jeans felt grown up. I remember Benetton back packs (Nikki's dog's name is Benetton), and I remember Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.  The undertones of Satanic cults were everywhere in my small rural, PA town, so much so that I chose the topic Satanism as my 9th grade term paper topic.  I remember the advent of the grunge scene. Wasserman's cultural references took me back to that uncomfortable time in my life, but to the darker side that I never succumbed to, or that never existed, or that I never knew existed.

I know teenagers are messy (and were messy), but are they this mean? Did Wasserman merely take the stereotypes of girls and present the dystopic vision of what really goes on at high school parties, or out in the woods, or in their beat up used cars, or down by the lake, or behind the closed bedroom doors?

As a high school teacher for 15 years, I know that high school girls are intense, but these girls are violent, horrifying train wrecks that I like to think are not the rule but the exception.

'Girls on Fire' never lets up.  It burns with a hungry, dark insatiability as Wasserman switches the perspective - past and present, Lacey to Dex and even throws in some thoughts from the parents who might even be sadder stereotypes than their desperate daughters.  The power of the novel comes from the suspense that builds and the "truth" of Craig's suicide as well as the fate of Nikki, Dex and Lacey. It would be cruel of me (crueler than the attitude of the girls in this book) if I revealed any of the unraveling.

Although the girls never rise about their labels nor do their character arcs give you any type of hero worth rooting for, more than likely you will find yourself caught up in the fire, burning through pages to see the inevitable, unrelenting destruction.  I was seduced and saddened.  Thrilled and let down.  Disgusted and worried.

When I closed the book at the end, I uttered one word, "Damn."

I rethought my high school experience and my obsession with the movie 'Heathers,' how I loved reading Stephen King novels, how I listened to Metallica, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and Kurt Cobain. It reminded me that we all have a bit of darkness inside of us.  Most of us, though, know how to stay in the light.

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