“The sun dips toward the horizon and the wind blows cold over the waves, as the sky blazes red and darkness gathers around the girls, neither of them knowing how little time they have left before the fire goes out.”

Note: this has spoilers

After finishing Girls on Fire (HarperCollins, 2016) I was surprised to discover this is Robin Wasserman’s first book for adults. I assumed it was YA because that’s where my library shelved it and I think it’s YA. I wonder if the sex makes the prudish mainstream US publishing industry think it won’t sell as YA. Don’t they know teenagers have sex?

Girls On Fire stands alongside The Virgin Suicides in its brilliant portrayal of female adolescence.”

One of the first things I noticed about Girls on Fire was this cover blurb comparing it to The Virgin Suicides. I really dislike the comparison, almost as much as Jeffrey Eugenides’ book. I guess he’s published by HarperCollins or something.

The Virgin Suicides is a portrayal of male adolescence. The male author writes about a bunch of teenage boys besotted with five teenage sisters. As adults, the characters reminisce about the girls, objects for their adolescent desire. The girls are present to further the boys’ story and die along the way. Theoretically a male author could write well about female adolescence, as brilliantly as Robin Wasserman does. Jeffrey Eugenides does not have this skill.

Girls On Fire is pretty much the opposite of The Virgin Suicides. Craig’s only reason for being is as an object for the girls’ desire. Even though their adult lives are mentioned in the final chapter, the rest of the book isn’t a reminiscence of their adolescence. Which is why I don’t think it’s an adult book, while The Virgin Suicides is. Whether a book is YA has nothing to do with the age of the protagonists or the amount of sex they enjoy, it’s something more subtle. I’ve always had trouble defining YA and find it easier to give examples.

The “Them” sections in Girls On Fire make it unlike most YA. The girls’ mothers remember what their life was before motherhood, when they themselves were girls. They didn’t become a woman after being a girl, just a mother, the role swallowing them whole. Robin Wasserman writes about the semantics of girlhood in her article “What Does it Mean When We Call Women Girls.”

“If the evolution from girl to woman insinuates an erasure of self, then it’s our expectations of female adulthood that should change, not our terminology.”

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Girls On Fire might be adult after all. Now I’m just confusing myself.

Of course, assigning a book to YA or adult is an opinion and does it matter? I read those articles written by readers who think YA is beneath them and cringe, partly because I’m the opposite. If I know a book is categorized as adult, I’m disinclined to read it, so many times I’ve been disappointed. Occasionally I’ll read something and love it, but that doesn’t stop me generalising.

Whatever the category, I love Girls On Fire. For the intense teenage friendship, for the reminiscing of my own teenage years, for Robin Wasserman’s spectacular writing.

“It was another thing altogether to be a girl wearing a pentagram. It was always another thing, being a girl.”