The Girls, by Emma Cline, Random House, 346 pages
I didn’t think I’d like this book, mostly due to the hype it received when it first came out two years ago. Yet, I surprised myself by staying up late in order to finish. I couldn’t stop reading, though not always for the right reason. I’ll get to that later.
Here’s the basic premise: Evie Boyd is a fourteen-year-old California girl growing up in an affluent area in the late 60s. Her home life is falling apart, she has almost no friends and she’s stuck in that period all girls go through, where they’re both terribly self-conscious and terribly self-involved and selfish. She becomes entangled with a cult led by a man named Russell that, as it so happens, mirrors Charles Manson and his followers. Of course, this ends badly, with a gruesome murder of two women, a man and a five-year-old boy. Evie isn’t directly involved with the murder but was in the car as the group heads to the house where the killings take place.
The book goes back and forth between a middle-aged Evie (and it’s evident that her life never recovers from the knowledge of this murder), and fourteen-year-old Evie. The back-and-forth aren’t always smooth, and these stutters can be jarring.
Sadly, the cult doesn’t feel authentic and neither does Evie’s involvement with it. I wish Cline had worked harder to make Russell more charismatic to the reader so that we could understand why his women followers were so enthralled with him, I wish she had given us richer scenes with richer flavors. Mostly, I wish the book had more accurately captured the flavor and turmoil of the 60s. The cult scenes were missing the anti-establishment vibe so prevalent at the time. Oh, it’s mentioned but yet it simply feels mentioned. It doesn’t feel real or deep or true. (This actually makes the women, or girls, as they’re called, appear vague and stereotyped, as if they are mere caricatures of 60s cult women.)
Which brings us to the writing. When Cline gets it right, she gets it right, throwing out passages about adolescent girlhood that shine so bright they almost hurt to read. It’s impossible to not remember what it was like to be a girl on the brink of womanhood, to feel all of those insecurities mingled with the newfound power of the body (and not just your body, either, but how your body relates to all of the bodies around you, that constant assessment, that constant need for approval).
Yet, this also works against the book. It’s as if Cline tries so hard to keep the writing poetic that she sacrifices the plot. We’re inside Evie’s head so much and yet we don’t really know her. The writing keeps us at a distance instead of pulling us in closer.
Too often, the writing reminded me of graduate level creative writing class writing, everything so smooth and flattened out, the writing lovely and poetic but lacking in the kind of depth needed to move this story forward.
Yet, saying all of that, I was still intrigued. I read quickly, almost thoughtlessly. I suppose I was looking for something, for Evie to gain redemption or insight or for the book to sum up the 60s with a large and stunning statement. But the ending, as with the rest of the book, was simply more oh-so-lovely sentences strung together to form more sounding-so-deep-but-not-really-deep insights.
When I finished the book, I felt vaguely cheated. I wanted more and, I suppose, I felt I deserved more, too. Yet I also wondered: Is this maybe an accurate portrayal of life? Do most of us really redeem ourselves or learn from our experiences? It’s almost as if Cline isn’t sure or doesn’t think it’s necessary to be sure. Which led me to wonder: Is this an oversight on the author’s part or a type of odd and unintended truth?
My rating? 3.5 stars.