YA and middle-grade author extraordinaire Robin Wasserman has published her first novel for adults, and it has all the zip and suspense of her novels for younger people. Girls on Fire is chilling, fast-paced, and decidedly not for kids. I listened to it on audio, and it was perfect for my RIP XI Challenge.
The novel opens in 1991. Hannah Dexter is watching TV with her parents when she hears that a high school classmate of hers, a football star named Craig, was found in the woods, apparently dead from suicide on Halloween night. Although Hannah has known Craig most of her life, he lived in a different world than her. His girlfriend, Nikki, is Hannah’s nemesis; she never misses a chance to taunt Hannah or humiliate her in front of their peers. Up until then, Hannah’s life was boring routine – school, parents, TV, loneliness.
Then, Hannah meets Lacey, a new girl who moved to their school about a year ago. Lacey rescues Hannah from a particularly nasty incident with Nikki and stands up for her. Lacey is different from anyone Hannah has ever met: she dresses in flannel shirts and Doc Martens, listens to (and worships) Kurt Cobain, and doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do or who to be. And after the Nikki incident, she starts to hang around with Hannah and make her over in her own image.
For starters, she renames her Dex and introduces her to Kurt. The two girls begin to spend all of their time together, driving around in Lacey’s beat-up old car with the music cranked up, drinking heavily, and rebelling against everything and everyone. Their bold, wild actions build, getting bolder and wilder, as Dex and Lacey become best friends.
At first, it’s a lot of fun, and Dex is thrilled to finally have a real friend – and not just any friend, but someone as cool as Lacey. Their escapades escalate, and soon, a little part of Dex is wondering if maybe they’ve gone too far. Does she really want to do everything that Lacey is involving her in? But the pull of Lacey is magnetic, and the two girls are spinning out of control.
Chapters alternate between Dex and Lacey (and Nikki gets some chapters, too), and slowly, bit by bit, the reader learns of Lacey’s secrets. She has plenty of them, things that Dex doesn’t know, can’t know. The girls’ wild activities contribute to a town-wide panic that started with Craig’s death. The adults in town suspect satanic rituals are taking their teenagers, and Dex and Lacey have fun feeding that fear.
This is way beyond Girls Gone Wild. Although its protagonists are teen girls, Girls on Fire is definitely not written for kids. It is very dark, with plenty of graphic violence and sex. The entire novel is pervaded by a sense of dread: you know that things will not end well for Dex and Lacey. You hold your breath waiting for them to crash and burn.
This story is filled with surprising twists at every turn. It was riveting to listen to on audio, with multiple narrators for the girls. I could feel the tension building and was waiting for the train wreck I knew was coming. It is a dark and original story, about what can happen when teen girls recognize their power and use it for wicked purposes. I was captivated from the beginning to the end of this unique and frightening story.