Review of Girls on Fire, by Robin Wasserman

Imagine John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club remade by Quintain Tarantino with a soundtrack by Nirvana instead of Simple Minds & R-rated for nudity, sex, violence & language. That’s how I envision a movie version of Girls on Fire. The setting is “the butt crack of western Pennsylvania”–an imaginary rust-belt town called Battle Creek somewhere near Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen country. The plot involves discovering what happened to the high-school athlete Craig Ellison, an apparent suicide by gunshot, & a struggle for the soul of Hannah Dexter, a junior @ the school. Her BF, the grunge-girl wild-child worshipper of Kurt Cobain, Lacey Champlain, wants to turn “Dex” into a goth-girl; their frenemy, teen-princess Nikki Drummond, would transform “Hannah” into a Monongahela Valley Girl.

In fiction these days it is the teens who are resourceful & knowledgable & the adults who are helpless & clueless. That is not surprising when the parents themselves think that they are still teenagers, exemplified by Dex’s father Jimmy, whose mid-life crisis he would resolve by restarting his old garage band & fumbling with Lacey in the darkened movie theater where he barely manages to hold down a job. Of course real teenagers are much better @ being teenagers than are 40-somethings.

Setting in the early ‘90s is both realistic & somewhat overdone. Battle Creek seems overrun with “Christian” fundamentalists obsessed with Satanism. There was a scare about devil worshippers @ that time, but I think it centered more on day-care facilities than on high schools. I’d prefer to believe that even @ that time & place Hannah would have been recognized & treated as a rape victim rather than as a Satanic bad girl after what happened to her in the aftermath of Nikki’s foreclosure party. Perhaps fortunately, Lacey’s horrible stepfather–“the Bastard”–seemed too OTT as well, tho’ Lacy’s experience @ the “Christian” reform school was wonderfully harrowing, if gratuitous. I felt the author had to pad the narrative, the year that elapses after Craig’s death: the plot needed the economy, concentration & punch that Megan Abbott might have given it. This book needs toning, less sag & tighter story. The ‘90s setting was probably chosen less for the ambience of the period (tho’ we get an allusion to that very middle-aged teenager Bill Clinton) than that Kurt Cobain needed to still be alive.

I loved the main characters Dex & Lacey, & even Nikki attracted me despite herself. But I found the very end of the story deflated & boring, as if the author simply gave up instead of devising a conclusion appropriate to the characters, unless like another Hannah, Arendt, Robin Wasserman wanted to portray the banality of evil. Morally tho’, I have reflect a lot more on Dex’s choice. Unlike in The Secret History, here the question of how far you should go for someone you love is much harder to answer. Committing a crime to save a friend & implicating a friend to make her share your guilt may be the same legally, but morally they are world’s apart.

With Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman belongs on the level with Megan Abbott, but more the Abbott of Fever than of Dare Me. I intend to read parts of this one again (wonderful to have both Kindle & audio), but probably not all the way through. So five stars–but one’s a bit dim.

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