Assignment Pick

Girls on Fire: A Novel by Robin Wasserman

Author’s Note: This sketch of SNHU faculty Robin Wasserman’s phenomenally successful first adult novel Girls on Fire didn’t start out to be a rant on the abject nonsensicality of most book reviewers, but I’m afraid it might descend into one.

First things first.

“I originally really wanted to write something that was shaped by the Satanic panic,” Robin told The Los Angeles Times in April 2017, “this moment in time when people in this country started to go kind of wild with panic about what their teenagers were getting up to.”

The publisher’s blurb takes it a click further: “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.”

Meanwhile, Mean Girl in Chief Nikki Drummond (Dead Boy’s girlfriend) inspires social X-ray good-girl Hannah Dexter and bad-girl Lacey Champlain to co-conspire against Drummond in ways that will ring bells with anyone who was a high school girl in the 90s. In fact, the 90s themselves are nearly a character, with routine and affectionate references to VHS tapes and grunge culture and Kurt Cobain. Lacey progressively draws Hannah (rechristened Dex) into a powerful counter-cultural vortex of sex and rebellion that forms a basis for girl-on-girl friendship that denies boys and embraces, as other reviewers often wrote, a Thelma and Louise vibe.

Never having been a high school girl in the 90s, I was as impressionable as Dex was under Lacey’s spell. Okay, yes—fiction. But just as movies suspend our disbelief, I felt Girls was a documentary of a clandestine world kept from me, like Knights Templar or algebra. Unlike my old algebra texts, though, I could hardly put Robin’s book down despite there being no explosions in it at all. It’s at turns compelling and repellent, cautionary but instructive. It’s a damned fine way to obliterate a weekend.

But those reviewers. Am I the only one who wonders where on God’s Green Earth the Kirkus people dredge up their irregular band of freelance faultfinders? “After hammering home the smallness of the town Dex and Lacey dream of escaping, Wasserman asks the reader to believe that this humdrum place could produce not one, but two, teen sociopaths—not just mean girls who go too far, but born deceivers and natural manipulators. Simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming.”

Yeah, fiction, sis. One thousand dollars American says this person hasn’t been able to sell her own heartbreaking work of staggering genius. So tired (eye-rolling emoji).

Rant secured.

“Before we learn to love men,” Keziah Weir wrote in Elle, “we often learn to love a girl.” Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire demonstrates why that should be true.

Strongly, unequivocally recommended.

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Five Stars: One for any writer facing the anxiety of a blank page; one for crafting an extraordinary narrative of depth and complexity; one for recognizable characters as alive on paper as they were in high school; one for the audacity to illuminate even fictional girls’ lives in unflinching ways; and one because this book is so much better than algebra.

— Daniel Charles Ross

Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—attended Mountainview MFA in 2015. The thriller, Force No One, was to be his thesis. Visit his website