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  1. Book ImageThe Burning Girl: A Novel

    Claire Messud

    A New York Times Bestseller

    A bracing, hypnotic coming-of-age story about the bond of best friends, from the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children.

Discussion Questions

  1. The novel opens with Julia’s explanation that stories differ depending on the point at which they begin, and that each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. How might Cassie’s story have differed from Julia’s? Where would Cassie begin her story?
  2. Why do Julia and Cassie believe the Bonnybrook asylum is special? What does it represent to them, and why do you think they choose to return there?
  3. As an adolescent, Julia feels that she and Cassie are “secret sisters” and share experiences and perspectives that practically intertwine. As they age, Julia experiences a disenchantment with their friendship. How does the fabulistic style of Julia’s narration evolve as she grows up? How does she make sense of the world around her?
  4. Julia tells us from the beginning that her friendship with Cassie is a story. Throughout the novel, the girls make up the stories of their lives—first together and then separately—for themselves, for each other, and for the wider world. What are some of the stories each of them invents? Julia is also trying to resist certain stories that seem to her likely or even inevitable: What are they?
  5. The girls also make up their stories using the stories they already know—such as “Hansel and Gretel,” when they’re searching the forest for the asylum (i.e., when Julia puts slips of paper on the trees to help find their way back). What other references to familiar or archetypal stories can you find in this novel?
  6. Cassie becomes obsessed with locating her father. The man she ends up tracking down doesn’t recognize her. How would you explain what happened—do you think this man was her father? Or was Cassie’s mother lying about his identity?
  7. How does Bev change when she meets Anders Shute? What do you think accounts for this change? Do you believe Peter Oundle’s hypothesis that she is a con artist (pages 241–43)?
  8. On page 111, Julia declares that “growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid.” What does she mean by this? How would you describe this type of fear?
  9. Consider the idyllic, middle-class setting of Royston. From the overgrown asylum to the woods at the edge of Cassie’s house—how would you characterize the interplay between its nature and society? Do you think this characterization extends to the interplay between human nature and societal expectations?
  10. As they begin high school, Cassie and Julia grow apart, but Julia is adamant that it was “absolutely essential to not appear to care.” Why is this? Might things have turned out differently if she had made her feelings known, or had confronted Cassie?
  11. Cassie experiences frustrations and difficulties at home that she never shares with Julia. What accounts for her silence? What things is she able to share and not able to share with her best friend?
  12. While considering her friendship with Cassie, Julia admits that “all any of us can do for another person is to have the courage not to turn away. I didn’t, until I did.” Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
  13. What do you make of the Burnes’ moving away? After Peter runs into Cassie, he describes her looking “like she was a hostage” (page 239). Who or what do you think might be holding her back?
  14. After Cassie moves away, Julia speculates that if Cassie had been killed, “the town of Royston would have claimed and redeemed her.” Why is this? Do you agree? Have you seen this phenomenon in other situations?
  15. Julia’s interest in theater leads her to the understanding that adult life is a lot like acting (page 243). How does this manifest in the story? How do different characters put on a performance?

About Claire Messud

Claire Messud is a recipient of Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Author of five previous works of fiction including her most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family.

Books by Claire Messud

  1. Book CoverThe Burning Girl: A Novel

    Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
    Named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, NPR, Financial Times, Town & Country, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Refinery29, and Literary Hub

    “[A] masterwork of psychological fiction.… Messud teases readers with a psychological mystery, withholding information and then cannily parceling it out.”—Chicago TribuneMore

  2. Book CoverWhen the World Was Steady: A Novel

    A PEN/Faulkner Award finalist about two sisters’ divergent paths, from the author of The Burning Girl and The Emperor’s Children.More