Title: Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Genre: Historical (90s), Mystery
Length: 368 pages
Book Rating: C
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss
On Halloween, 1991, a popular high school basketball star ventures into the woods near Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, and disappears. Three days later, he’s found with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand—a discovery that sends tremors through this conservative community, already unnerved by growing rumors of Satanic worship in the region.
In the wake of this incident, bright but lonely Hannah Dexter is befriended by Lacey Champlain, a dark-eyed, Cobain-worshiping bad influence in lip gloss and Doc Martens. The charismatic, seductive Lacey forges a fast, intimate bond with the impressionable Dex, making her over in her own image and unleashing a fierce defiance that neither girl expected. But as Lacey gradually lures Dex away from her safe life into a feverish spiral of obsession, rebellion, and ever greater risk, an unwelcome figure appears on the horizon—and Lacey’s secret history collides with Dex’s worst nightmare.
By turns a shocking story of love and violence and an addictive portrait of the intoxication of female friendship, set against the unsettled backdrop of a town gripped by moral panic, Girls on Fire is an unflinching and unforgettable snapshot of girlhood: girls lost and found, girls strong and weak, girls who burn bright and brighter—and some who flicker away.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is a disturbing exploration of the darker side of teenage girls’ friendships.
Hannah Dexter is an ordinary and wholly unremarkable teenager who is essentially friendless until befriended by newcomer Lacey Champlain in the aftermath of popular classmate Craig Ellison’s inexplicable suicide. Lacey is the quintessential bad girl who easily transforms good girl Hannah into rebellious Dex. Throw in resident mean girl (and Craig’s girlfriend) Nikki Drummond into the mix and it is just a matter of time before the story takes a very sinister turn.
After suffering an extremely humiliating experience made much worse by Nikki’s involvement, Hannah is bewildered but thrilled when Lacey takes her under her wing. The two girls are soon inseparable and Hannah, who Lacey renames “Dex”, eagerly follows wherever her new friend leads. Dex is an enthusiastic participant as Lacey introduces her to underage drinking, encourages her to experiment with drugs and prompts her to explore her dormant sexuality. Engaging in increasingly risky behavior, events at a party quickly spiral out of control and Dex finds comfort from a very unlikely source.
Worshipping at the altar of Kurt Cobain and his angst-ridden lyrics, Lacey takes the small town of Battle Creek, PA by storm. Ignored by her alcoholic mother and scornful of her pious stepfather, Lacey challenges authority and takes teenage defiance to a whole new level. Lacey is manipulative and seductive and underneath her rebellious exterior dwells a very troubled young woman.
Nikki is popular but bored and no one wants to get on her bad side since she is also cruel and calculating. Surprisingly, she is type of girl whose meanness is not easily recognized and her reputation is never damaged by her bullying. But beneath her sickly sweet persona lurks plenty of dark and menacing secrets that Nikki will go to great lengths to keep hidden.
While the premise of Girls on Fire is certainly interesting, the story quickly becomes bogged down in superfluous details and rambling, repetitive inner monologues. The overall pacing is a little sluggish and although the brief glimpses of an illicit relationship are intriguing, the slow trickle of details is frustrating and tedious. The time period, the small town setting and references to the news of the day are absolutely spot on and provide an interesting and perfect backdrop for some aspects of the storyline.
Dark, violent and sexually charged, Girls on Fire is a gritty and sometimes overly dramatic novel that delves into the intricacies of toxic relationships. While not always an easy story to read, Robin Wasserman does an excellent job keeping the storyline unpredictable and the novel’s conclusion is rather shocking and completely unexpected. An overall unsettling story that I recommend to mature readers.