Many of us remember our teenage years as the most intense period of our lives. The highs are higher, the lows lower, the mediums all but nonexistent. The best books about adolescence echo the way life felt with the volume turned up to 11.
Girls on Fire is the first novel for adults by bestselling young adult author Robin Wasserman (The Book of Blood and Shadow). The same way mainstream novelists successfully transition to writing for children by not condescending to them, Wasserman makes the move from YA by retaining many of the same elements that have worked for her in the past. Why, after all, should we pretend grownup readers are less interested in sex and violence and danger than teens? When it comes down to it, who doesn’t like a good story?
The year is 1991, and Wasserman’s protagonists, high schoolers Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain, are outsiders in Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Smart, sad Hannah has been floating through her own life like a balloon; new-in-town Lacey grabs Hannah’s string and ties it to her wrist. For the first time, Hannah feels seen, even if Lacey mostly looks at her to make adjustments to the way she dresses, and thinks, and enjoys herself.
Hannah knows that, in many ways, she’s still a balloon, but she’s so pleased to be attached to one person instead of floating freely she doesn’t mind that Lacey is the one who makes decisions. Lacey declares the local woods off-limits and the local lake a nearly sacred place. Lacey sets Kurt Cobain up to be worshipped. Lacey gives Hannah a new name to go with her new identity: Dex.
Lacey is the one with ideas and plans. Lacey is interesting, and being friends with her makes Dex interesting, too, so Dex overlooks the ways Lacey is erratic and unstable. Lacey, after all, has been damaged: by her alcoholic mother, her absentee father, her abusive stepfather, her rough childhood and even rougher present. Like many of us, Dex is as drawn to Lacey’s drama and her strong personality. And though Lacey mocks Dex’s bourgeois life, two-parent household, and penchant for following the rules, she is likewise drawn to Dex’s stability. The way she is vulnerable. The way she is normal.
As close as Dex gets to Lacey, much about her friend remains a mystery. Wasserman, though, lets us into the heads of both characters as their older selves reflect back on this tumultuous period in their lives, and that gives us more insight than either Lacey or Dex has in the moment. We know, for example, that the woods are off-limits because Lacey had some connection with the apparent suicide there of popular boy Craig Ellison. We also know that Lacey has more history with popular girl Nikki Drummond than she’s willing to let on.
We know, in short, much more about the depths of Lacey’s darkness than Dex does, who is content to enjoy her visit to the edges of the abyss. Lacey acquaints Dex with dancing, drinking, and drugs, but when the fun takes on a more disturbing tint—when, for example, they join some Satanists for recreational animal slaughter—Dex is content to forget it and not think too deeply about what Lacey’s more lurid impulses could mean.
Wasserman leans into her own lurid impulses, especially as the story of Dex and Lacey builds towards a climax. Her subject is not just the power of obsessive female friendship, but how breathtakingly cruel ordinary people can be, and the decay that often festers beneath the facades of individuals and small towns alike. (“They knew she was a carnivore, but didn’t understand she was a cannibal.”) Girls on Fire is descended from Foxfire, Girl, Interrupted, and the dark teen-vengeance comedy Heathers, and like those tales, much of it is told at a fever pitch, as eager to get a reaction from us as Lacey is compelled to shock and enthrall Dex. But Wasserman is just as good, if not better, in quiet, perceptive moments like this one:
Dex’s mother knew what it was to lose herself in someone brighter, to be trapped by the gravitational field of another sun. She knew what happened when it emerged that the sun was only a lightbulb, and what happened when the lightbulb burned out.