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…
Girls on Fire is an intense book; it feels more like a mirror of society rather than just a straightforward story. What Wasserman has done is, within the narrative, challenged the gender roles and male privilege, while telling a story about three girls who, for different reasons aimed to carve out their identities and be something else than what they were molded to be. The setting is early 90s, when Lacey was just introduced to Kurt Cobain and the liberation of her inner self. The fire within her attracted the oft-forgotten Hannah, who becomes Dex to please her, and because she is tired of being Hannah. Together, their friendship is all-consuming, a relationship that though platonic, is more intense than romance. Dex needs Lacey to keep her wild, and Lacey needs her to feel sane; the latter is broken and won’t admit it to the former. In fact, both present a facade of coolness at first – desperate for validation and feeling needed, and where there are lies, there are cracks for another person to come.
Lacey’s and Dex’s wild adventures don’t go unnoticed in their conservative town, but as long as their antics are heard of, not seen, people don’t really give them a hard time. But one night, in a string of mistakes, Dex falls prey to her peers and it sets off a chain of events that leads to Nicole driving a wedge between them, and dredging up a shared past with Lacey. It must be noted here that despite Lacey’s and Dex’s anarchic tendencies, most of their actions were to get a rise out of people – kind of like a middle finger to their ultra-perfect-model town, in which God-fearing parents think their kids can do no wrong and are quick to point them out as the Devil’s handmaidens. We have these complex girls and this is a complicated town, making for a plot that is laden with subtext about nearly everything from sexism, bullying, violence and trauma, to loneliness, and abuse.
A topic that the book circles around is the burden of being a girl as opposed to the burden of being a women. In alternating perspectives, the story is mostly told by Dex and Lacey, but there are a few ‘Them’ chapters about the mothers – who were girls like them once, and now grown into women, see their daughters like the girls they once were. It places a different demarcation between a girl and a women – the loss of not innocence, but of dreams and that fire that burns within a girl until it is stamped out and replaced with expectations. The story doesn’t glorify being ‘bad’ but it doesn’t see all that great about being ‘good’ either. One particularly powerful quote was about how for men it was easy to be different things, whereas for a girl it was either good or she is slut-shamed.
Finally, I would like to point out that while the story is pretty good, the pace is slow. The story also speaks more of nostalgia, and that should have been my first clue that it is not YA (damn you, Goodreads shelving). I found out, at the end of the book, that is actually an adult novel, and with the content of the book, I would say it ambiguously straddles the line between both. On one hand, the language and content (there is a lot of mature content) would place it in adult, but it is not entirely unusual for YA to deal with such topics either. But the overall feel of the novel is distinctly not YA, which I can’t really explain in words. Bottom-line? It is a book that is amazingly written and has plenty of food for thought.
Trigger warning: Sexual assault, Suicide