Joe Valdez's Reviews > Girls on Fire

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
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did not like it
bookshelves: fiction-general

My "Girls Girls Girls" jag continues with Girls On Fire, a foray into literary fiction by Robin Wasserman, who until the publication of this novel in 2016, had been dipping in the Young Adult pool. This was my introduction to the author, whose skills handling a poison pen and translating the venom of teenage girls onto the page are admirable, but whose inability to trust an adult reader, tell a story and get out of her own way turn the kitchen into a mess. I abandoned it at the page 256/356 mark, but started skimming earlier, as Wasserman skips around in time, alternates between narrators but can't hide how little there is in the way of compelling content here.

The story pushes off in November 1991, in the fictional town of Battle Creek in western Pennsylvania. Dullsville to any red-blooded teenager, disquiet and intrigue settle over the town with the suicide of Craig Ellison, a high school football player who beats up weridos and underclassmen for sport. You know, the Neanderthal Jock. Hannah Dexter is another archetype, the Girl Next Door. Hannah barely knew Craig and won't miss him, but her world is shaken by the attention given to her by new student Lacey Champlain, a Riot Grrl who refuses to participate in a silent prayer for Craig and contacting the ACLU, forces the school to drop it for the entire student body.

Humiliated in gym by her monthly cycle and the school's queen bitch Nikki Drummond, Hannah reports to the nurse's office, where she meets Lacey, who convinces Hannah to cut class. The New Kid gives the Girl Next Door a new name ("Dex"), new listening material (Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana) and transports her on road trips in her crap Buick. Her charisma not only proves irresistible for Dex, but for her father Jimmy, who long ago abandoned his love for music to become a responsible parent. Lacey lives with a groupie mother whose free spirit has been put in check by a religious fundamentalist stepfather she calls the Bastard. Like most teenagers, the girls crave escape.

For six hours, we drove. The Buick bumped and wheezed, the cassette player ate Lacey's third-favorite bootleg, the crumbled AAA maps beaconed our way and while I hovered over a suspiciously discolored toilet seat and then washed by hands with sickly gray soap, examining myself in the mirror for some clue that I'd become the kind of girl who lit out for the territories, some trucker tried to feel up Lacey in the Roy Rogers parking lot. We drove until the car swerved off the highway and into a parking lot gritty with sand, and there we were.

The ocean was endless.

The ocean beat and beat against the shore.

We held hands and let the Atlantic wash over our bare feet. We breathed in salt and spray under the dawning sky.

It was the biggest thing I had ever seen. Lacey gave that to me.

"This is how I'd do it," Lacey said, almost too quiet to hear under the surf. "I'd come out here at night, when the beach was empty, and I'd take an inflatable raft into the water. Then I'd hold on, and let it carry me out. Far enough that no one would ever find me. That I couldn't change my mind. I'd bring my mother's sleeping pills, and my Walkman, and a safety pin. And when I was out far enough that I couldn't hear the waves breaking anymore, that the raft was just bobbing on the water and there was nothing but me and the stars? I'd do it. In order. The order matters. Pills first, then the safety pin, just a tiny hole in the raft, small enough that it would take some time. Then I'd put on the headphones, and lie down on the raft so I could see the stars and feel the water in my hair, and I'd let Kurt sing me home."


Open up Girls on Fire to any page and this novel has the appearance of being good. Wasserman is a detail freak, which I love. She succumbs to nostalgia fever by setting her story in 1991, at the end of the Reagan-Bush era in a town gripped by paranoia of Satanic cults and teen suicide, but I found this choice was a function of the author drawing on her girlhood as opposed to marketing. Lacey Champlain is the fierce, otherworldly badass we all wish we were in high school and was forceful enough to sustain my interest for a while. Wasserman introduces pieces to suggest that they'll click sooner or later into a story.

The more fiction I read, the less patience I have for the multiple narrator device. It's creative and it disrupts what's truly important: the story. Imagine having mind blowing sex with someone and they get up to leave in mid-coitus, signaling someone else take over for them. This is not my idea of a groovy time. None of my favorite novels--Lolita, The Razor's Edge, The Last Picture Show, Of Mice and Men--use such a reader alienating device. Multiple narrators might be more beneficial to authors who struggle to maintain focus in the years it takes to finish a novel as opposed to readers who really want to hear from multiple narrators in one book.

Wasserman's effort to write a novel does remind me of an author who might have written five or six pages at a time, came back next weekend and continued, unaware how many paragraphs she'd already devoted to Kurt Cobain, to Christian phonies, to co-dependent friendships. Girls on Fire goes round and round with some terrific language and strong images--I liked her description of an abandoned train station in the woods where the local kids go to experiment without parental supervision--but the answer to the most essential question I have for any novel--Do I want to know what happens on the next page--ultimately fails here completely.
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Reading Progress

August 27, 2016 – Shelved
August 27, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
January 21, 2018 – Started Reading
January 21, 2018 –
page 1
0.27% "See them in their golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits, lips nibbling and eyes scrunching in a doomed attempt not to cry."
January 21, 2018 –
page 5
1.36% "They finally found the body on a Sunday night, sometime between 60 Minutes and Married with Children. Probably closer to Andy Rooney than Al Bundy, because it would have taken some time for the news, even news like this, to travel."
January 21, 2018 –
page 10
2.72% "Lacey Champlain had a stripper’s name and a trucker’s wardrobe, all flannel shirts and clomping boots that—stranded as we were in what Lacey later called the butt crack of western Pennsylvania—we didn’t yet recognize as a pledge of allegiance to grunge. The new kid in school that hadn’t had a new kid in four years, she defied categorization."
January 21, 2018 –
page 25
6.79% "He definitely didn’t read Rilke or Nietzsche or Goethe or any of the other paperbacks we passed back and forth while I coughed down his cherry vodka and he taught me how to smoke. He was too lazy to make it past the first chapters of most of them, but I can believe he made it through Kerouac, because Jack spoke his language, his druggy, pretentious, wastrel nympho native tongue."
January 23, 2018 –
page 104
28.26% "Lacey decided to find me a more satisfactory dick. That's how she put it when she presented me with a flimsy fake ID and a black lace corset. "Amanda Potter"--born Long Island, 1969, Sagittarius, details I repeated over and over again--"is getting some tonight," Lacey told me, but didn't tell me how she'd found this club, a grim concrete block beside a highway, or why it promised to be my sexual salvation."
January 25, 2018 – Finished Reading
January 26, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction-general

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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message 1: by Debra (new)

Debra Fantastic Review! I loved this " Imagine having mind blowing sex with someone and they get up to leave in mid-coitus, signaling someone else take over for them." You DO have a point! I hope you next book is better.


Charlotte May Great review Joe! I didn’t think much of this one either


message 3: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Good review Joe. That sex scene....OMG! ha ha ha


message 4: by Kelli (new)

Kelli Excellent review. Passing on this.


message 5: by Julie (new)

Julie Okay, I’ll never be reading this, but I had fun reading your “report,” as you would say. Even the sex scenes couldn’t redeem it??


message 6: by Candi (new)

Candi An entertaining and well-written review as always, Joe. Perhaps it's time to ditch the girls and move on to some real women? ;0


message 7: by Robin (new)

Robin I love Candi's comment above!

Excellent and totally fair review... it sounds like a hot mess. Which, in this case, wasn't a good thing. But your review sure was a pleasure to read!


message 8: by Jenny (last edited Jan 27, 2018 08:06AM) (new)

Jenny How do you do it, Joe? Another great review.
When I saw that you were reading this, I looked at reviews to see what other reviewers had to say. Based on a majority of reviews, I was hoping you wouldn't like it, as terrible of me as that it to say. I love your four and five-star reviews, but I must say that I enjoy your one-star reviews even more :)
(Hopefully, the actual meaning of my comment comes through around the repetition of the word "review"!)


message 9: by Eilonwy (new)

Eilonwy Wow, I'm not sure I've seen you 1-star anything before!

I completely agree with you about the multiple narrator-device. It's only successful in very rare cases, where the different viewpoints are absolutely necessary to the story. Most of the time, your comparison of it to coitus interruptus is perfect! I'm going to be laughing at that image all day.


message 10: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok I was going to say, “You sure write a mean review,” but fear that might be misconstrued. I love your reviewing style! Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, though I have a book with girl in the title I must beg you will not read it. (Seriously, I don’t think it would be your cup of tea.)


message 11: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Brilliant review Joe.


message 12: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Debra wrote: "Fantastic Review! I loved this " Imagine having mind blowing sex with someone and they get up to leave in mid-coitus, signaling someone else take over for them." You DO have a point! I hope you next book is better."

Thank you so much, Debra! I know there are people who enjoy multiple narrators in their fiction. Attention challenged authors have attention challenged readers as well, but it's just not for me.


message 13: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Charlotte wrote: "Great review Joe! I didn’t think much of this one either"

Thank you, Charlotte! I enjoyed your review as well, and it says a lot that even with the tease of A SHOCKING ENDING I have absolutely no desire to find out what happened to the Girl Next Door or her wild friend. Author fail, in my opinion.


message 14: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Barbara wrote: "Good review Joe. That sex scene....OMG! ha ha ha"

Thank you, Barbara. I'm glad to provide a laugh!


message 15: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Kelli wrote: "Excellent review. Passing on this."

I hope that I helped, Kelli. Consider other reviewers and also how you feel about the content and format the author favored.


message 16: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Julie wrote: "Okay, I’ll never be reading this, but I had fun reading your “report,” as you would say. Even the sex scenes couldn’t redeem it??"

Julie, your approbation means the world to me. I'm thrilled to put you on the Tilt-A-Whirl for some fun reading. You remind me of another problem with this book, which is that a character telling about sex she might have had--unreliable narrator--and a sex scene are two completely different things. One is tedious, the other might be exciting.


message 17: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Candi wrote: "An entertaining and well-written review as always, Joe. Perhaps it's time to ditch the girls and move on to some real women? ;0"

Thank you so much, Candi. Now, this made me laugh. I think that you have a point, but real women are so hard to find in fiction these days.


message 18: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Robin wrote: "Excellent and totally fair review... it sounds like a hot mess. Which, in this case, wasn't a good thing. But your review sure was a pleasure to read!"

Thank you greatly, Robin. I do a mental somersault when you and Julie comment on my book reports. Your wit and taste floor me. We'll see if any trolls attempt to hector me about my opinion of this book--some book extremists believe you must finish a book to post your opinion of it--but my feed has been isolated from that sort of attention.


message 19: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Jenny wrote: "When I saw that you were reading this, I looked at reviews to see what other reviewers had to say. Based on a majority of reviews, I was hoping you wouldn't like it, as terrible of me as that it to say. I love your four and five-star reviews, but I must say that I enjoy your one-star reviews even more."

You and your father's are such consummate readers that it makes me happy I can provide something of value to you with my book reports, Jenny. Thank you. I never read a book with the hope of hating it and if you read any one page of this one, you'd believe it would be good. I don't recommend trying that, of course.


message 20: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Eilonwy wrote: "Wow, I'm not sure I've seen you 1-star anything before!

I completely agree with you about the multiple narrator-device. It's only successful in very rare cases, where the different viewpoints are absolutely necessary to the story. Most of the time, your comparison of it to coitus interruptus is perfect! I'm going to be laughing at that image all day. "


It's been a while, Holly. I only give one star reviews to books I can't finish and have gotten better at filtering stuff I know that I'm not the demographic for, but this novel was for adults and completely failed to engage me. I agree with you that multiple narrators requires great finesse and is different than novels like The Stand which present multiple storylines but some consistency in the narration, timeline and what is unfolding. I'm happy to provided some silliness to your reading week.


message 21: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Abigail wrote: "I was going to say, “You sure write a mean review,” but fear that might be misconstrued. I love your reviewing style! Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, though I have a book with girl in the title I must beg you will not read it."

I wouldn't have misconstrued you, Abigail. "Put Girl In The Title" is probably a form letter that every publisher has ready to send to authors. Saves some time.


message 22: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Maureen wrote: "Brilliant review Joe."

Why thank you, Maureen.


message 23: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Good honest review Joe, I hope your next read is better! :)


message 24: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Sandra wrote: “Good honest review Joe, I hope your next read is better! :)”

Thank you, Sandra. Whenever I need the safety of a good thrilling read, I run for cover with Megan Abbott. The less I dwell on the cold mess that was this book, the better.


message 25: by Diana (new)

Diana I agree with what you said about the multiple narrator device. I'll be glad when this trend starts to wane.


message 26: by Joe (last edited Jan 28, 2018 10:39AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Valdez Diana wrote: "I agree with what you said about the multiple narrator device. I'll be glad when this trend starts to wane."

The novel I'm reading now switches perspectives every now and then which I like. J.K. Rowling has to do this when describing any action that Harry Potter isn't present to observe. What I dislike is when Mom narrates one chapter, Daughter the next and maybe Mr. Skittles the Cat the next. The Poisonwood Bible does this (multiple narration, not a talking cat) and the book suffers for it.


message 27: by Diana (new)

Diana Joe wrote: "Diana wrote: "I agree with what you said about the multiple narrator device. I'll be glad when this trend starts to wane."

The novel I'm reading now switches perspectives every now and then which ..."


Yes, I knew what you meant.


message 28: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen Imagine having mind blowing sex with someone and they get up to leave in mid-coitus, signaling someone else take over for them. This is not my idea of a groovy time.

LOL :D So funny!

Sorry this was a dud for you, Joseph. I should have figured you had read this on your girls-journey, but somehow I missed this review.


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