The Girls, by Emma Cline, is one of those books you can’t help but hear about everywhere. From a new author, this book has been extremely hyped up the last few months. Finally, after trying in vain to score an ARC, I went out and spent actual money on a hardcover copy of this book because I simply had to read it. And my initial reaction to it? Meh.
The Girls sounds so eerie, so inviting, so full of promise. The narrative focuses on 14-year-old Evie Boyd who falls in with a cult in the summer of 1969. She’s a very insecure girl on the cusp of womanhood, experimenting for the first time with sex, drugs, and her own identity. What first attracts her to the cult is the enigmatic and edgy Suzanne, an 18-year-old girl who is one of the top members in a cult based on the Manson Family of the late 60s.
We meet Evie and her broken family: her mother, slowly becoming a hippie and having bland, shallow relationships with bland, shallow men. Her father, who cheated with a much younger woman and eventually left Evie’s mother for her. We see the flat expanse of a vague, run-down California town, populated with people who are going through the mechanics of their own lives. Evie’s voice is interesting and insightful, and she’s extremely precocious and developed for a young teenager. The main narrative is also punctuated by present-day Evie, revisiting her horrific past as a middle-aged woman.
The description/synopsis of the book is enchanting, but ultimately, this book fell way flat for me. The cult Evie becomes a fringe member of is so heavily based on the Manson Family that it almost feels like a less interesting rip-off of a true story, a shade of the history of America, and somewhat disrespectful of the actual victims of the 1969 Manson murders. The book is meant to draw a striking, eerie portrait of the inner workings of the cult and how it may have seemed to a young, impressionable girl, but in this capacity, it fails. The descriptions of cult life are poorly drawn and not that interesting. Evie’s voice and narration are very strong, but filtered through her eyes, the cult seems two-dimensional and boring.
What The Girls actually achieves very well is capturing the insecurities of young girls. The inner monologues of 14-year-olds. The awkward interactions between boys and girls. The way girls erase themselves to appeal to boys. The way they qualify their feelings, change their behavior, inhibit their desires. The way some boys take advantage, mistreat them, abuse them. All that terrible stuff. Her descriptions of these truths are haunting:
“That was part of being a girl—you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”
“Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of life. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get it. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”
That’s the real message of The Girls, wrapped in the metaphor—cause that’s how I read it—of a cult.
The other real con of The Girls, at least for me, is the bad MFA writing. The writing is wonderful at times, but overwritten on the whole, littered with ridiculous metaphors that stand out from the page like sore thumbs. (Metaphors like that!) For example:
“I ate in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat.”
“I tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences, working as a live-in aide. Cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant, ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.”
The ending of The Girls is fairly horrific, with the murders of four people (including a toddler) at the hands of the girls, though not the narrator. Another theme of the story is the ease of violence: if Evie has been present for the murders, would she have been able to kill? Anger toward abusers is a huge theme of the novel. Is killing easy if it’s revenge? Are we all, as humans, capable of senseless violence, cold-blooded murder?
I didn’t love this book, and don’t think it’s worth the hype (or the crazy-high advance) but it is worth a read if you’re interested in Americana, coming-of-age stories, gruesome violence, psychological portraits, and feeling a little icky. 😉