Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Publication Date: May 17th 2016
ARC Provided by Harper and Edelweiss
Girls on Fire left me kind of flat. The writing was fine, if starting to verge on the purple side, but I just didn’t connect with the characters or the story. I also felt like this was more of a Young Adult novel, granted appropriate only for the older YA audience, than an adult read. The story is a typical “good girl gone bad” narrative, but the characters’ actions and especially the way the story ended just didn’t work for me.
First of all, Hannah (aka Dex) “the good girl” wasn’t so much good as she was just passive and hollow. Lacey didn’t start out as “the town’s bad girl” either; misunderstood and crying out for attention definitely, but nothing more than some teenage rebellion at the beginning. Their friendship in Girls on Fire begins amid the mystery of a local boy’s suicide and we soon learn, through alternating POVs, that Lacey knows more about the incident than she is letting on. It’s pretty irrelevant to Lacey and Hannah’s actual friendship, but does provide motivation for other characters’ manipulations. I can’t say that I ever actually liked either of them. While their complicated relationship was well-developed and we were given plenty of time to get to know each girl, I still felt like there was something missing. That spark that would connect me to either one of them and make me care where they were headed just wasn’t there. Hannah was just a weak character throughout, being manipulated by everyone at every turn, and she was so awful to her parents, who were actually pretty decent people, that she ended up losing my sympathy. Lacey was a much more complicated character and I did feel for her at times throughout the book. Unfortunately, she alternated between maniac pixie dream girl and broken little bird, trying to come off as “super deep” too much of the time for me to take her seriously in the end.
In Girls on Fire, Hannah’s chapters narrate the action, while Lacey’s chapters are written as a letter to Dex. We don’t find out why until more than midway through the book, but then the reason for this literary device kind of falls apart even though it continues to be used. At first, it seems as if Lacey is manipulating Hannah, molding her into the image she wants. It also doesn’t help that Hannah seems to be suffering from extreme hero worship of Lacey and will do almost anything she asks of her. Hannah seems to be the innate worrier, always trying to pull Lacey back when she starts to go a little too far. Throughout their POVs, more and more about who they really are comes to light and we start to wonder if either of them is telling the whole truth, even to themselves.
This book is set in the early 1990’s and maybe I am missing some subtext because of that. I was still a young child at that time so I don’t really remember anything about suburban paranoia surrounding satanic cults. Girls on Fire hits this particular aspect pretty hard, but it just comes off as kind of sad. Lacey’s devil-worshipper act is just another desperate cry for attention, but the whole town (parents included) turn her into a pariah. While Lacey’s behavior seems to shock everyone in the book, it does nothing to shock the reader. Throw in all the underage sex, violence, drinking, drugs, bullying, and rape, and it just seems like a YA book that is trying too hard to come off as adult.
The ending is where Girls on Fire really lost me. I haven’t mentioned the character of Nikki yet, but picture a textbook definition mean girl. Of course she has history with Lacey and of course she uses Hannah to get to back at her. Its just… her motivation didn’t really work for me. She’s presented as a smart, yet ruthless, young woman, but also as a character that we are so clearly supposed to hate. She has little to no redeeming qualities and, so, it made it hard to care about her. I think this is what made the ending less impactful for me and more unbelievable. Not because I really cared what happened to Nikki, but because everything seemed so far out of scope for the way Hannah and Lacey’s characters had been shaped. Again, it seemed like another controversial element added just to be dark and overly dramatic, not an actual surprising, yet “in-character” ending.
I’m not really sure what Girls on Fire wanted us to take away from it. The intense female friendship narrative has been done much more believably in other books and stayed within the realm of normal human interactions. Girls on Fire’s Hannah and Lacey start out as a realistic pair of teens, but by the end of the book have become caricatures of their formers selves. The ending is less about what the allure and power of an intense friendship can drive anyone to do and more of an out-of-nowhere turn from girls next door to actually disturbed characters.
Robin Wasserman’s writing and her descriptions of places, especially of Hannah and Dex’s hometown of Battle Creek, can be quite beautiful. Her attention to detail, from the clothes to the cars to the grunge music scene and Kurt Cobain in particular, brought atmosphere to Girls on Fire and helped it to feel alive. I think that billing this particular novel as an Adult narrative is what caused it to missed the mark in some ways; it should have been marketed as a mature YA read. As it stands, that is how I would classify it. The story did not have the depth or the layers that I think an older audience will be looking for, as it would really belong to a younger group of readers. Now that I’ve had a taste of Ms. Wasserman’s writing style, I think I will look into some of her actual YA books to see if they appeal more to me than this particular read did.
Thank you to Harper via Edelweiss for providing an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Rating: = C-
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