A solid 4.5 stars out of 5
Many people were touting Emma Cline’s The Girls as the “it” book of the summer. I saw it front and center in nearly every bookshop I went into over the summer. Reviews of this book were popping up everywhere on Goodreads, Instagram, and YouTube—rather mixed reviews, actually, which was a factor in why I waited so long to pick it up.
When I saw that this book was available to request on NetGalley I decided to just go for it. I’m so glad I did. What an amazing talent this young author is. If people were starkly divided over this book, then I am definitely in the “loved it” camp. I highlighted so many passages that really struck me, so I’ll try to be selective and intersperse only my favorites throughout this review.
The novel is loosely inspired by the Manson Family, the 1960s commune in California whose members were responsible for the brutal killings of nine people, including the well-known actress Sharon Tate. The Girls is told through the voice of Evie Boyd, who at the age of fourteen as an only child in a recently-divorced family, gets swept up into a commune-like lifestyle on the ranch. The leader of the commune is Russell, a man who functions as a sort of Christ-figure for the followers at the ranch, but Suzanne is perhaps the second-most influential figure in their community.
Evie sees Suzanne for the first time in a park and, although they only lock eyes for a few seconds, Evie is magnetically drawn to her. Evie and Suzanne don’t speak to each other during that first encounter, but it seems fated that their paths will cross again. Evie is fascinated by the girls she saw in the park, but her life isn’t really impacted by them until they come across Evie on the side of the road with her broken-down bicycle and offer to give her a ride. Evie goes along with them to the ranch and from that night on, her life begins to slide further and further out of her control.
The story is fascinating in its own right, but what really made this book so exceptional for me was the writing style. Cline’s descriptions are so rich and so original that they really give a fresh feel to this book. She explains emotions in an unconventional way which shines a light on human behavior from a different angle. For me, this resulted in striking truths which seemed to just shine through Evie’s story–truths that you don’t ever have to have participated in a commune or cult to understand.
“I knew how easily it could happen, the past at hand, like the helpless cognitive slip of an optical illusion. The tone of a day linked to some particular item: my mother’s chiffon scarf, the humidity of a cut pumpkin. Certain patterns of shade. Even the flash of sunlight on the hood of a white car could cause a momentary ripple in me, allowing a slim space of return. I’d seen old Yardley slickers—the makeup now just a waxy crumble—sell for almost one hundred dollars on the Internet. So grown women could smell it again, that chemical, flowery fug. That’s how badly people wanted it—to know that their lives had happened, that the person they once had been still existed inside of them.”
It’s a novel about insecurities, particularly female insecurities. It’s about patriarchal society and how power is wielded over the impressionable, particularly impressionable young women. Cline tells Evie Boyd’s story, but Evie’s story is one that so many teenage girls will find familiar. The second-guessing of one’s actions, one’s words. The regret at saying something silly. The desire to fit in, the desire to be perceived as older than one actually is.
At the heart of this novel is the act of telling lies–lies that girls tell themselves about boys, lies that girls tell themselves to satiate a desire to belong, a desire to be wanted. Compromises and sacrifices that girls make to achieve a sense of inclusion and to be admired (or just to convince themselves of these things). It is also about manipulation and about transitioning from the manipulated to the manipulator, from victim to abuser.
“Mitch studied me with a questioning, smug smile. Men did it so easily, that immediate parceling of value. And how they seemed to want you to collude on your own judgment.”
Although most of the story focuses on the events of Evie’s life as a fourteen-year-old girl under the influence of the ranch and its residents, there are also passages in which Evie talks about the present. I think what these sections make clear about the message the book tries to convey is that the sort of manipulative behavior that happens in a cult-like environment is not merely confined to that physical place or time in the past, but also carries on in the present day and is part of human behavior on a more general level, especially the unhealthy male-female dynamic that still exists in our society. We get a sense of this when Julian, the son of one of Evie’s friends, seems to manipulate his girlfriend and even tries to intimidate Evie. Evie seems to be able to stand up to this type of behavior more as an adult, but we see how Julian’s girlfriend, Sasha, is so easily manipulated and bows to Julian’s control over her, sacrificing her own dignity in the act.
I flew through this book in the matter of a few days. I couldn’t stop reading it. It engulfed me. It haunted my thoughts and still continues to do so. I recommend this book to anyone that is interested in thinking about human behavior, how people deal with abuse, how people lie to themselves in order to retain a sense of love or belonging. I also recommend this if you’re just looking for a fresh voice in literature. Cline is a young author (only 27), and writes beautifully. My only (small) complaint is that she does seem to reuse certain expressions throughout the novel and it can start to seem a bit repetitive. I was able to overlook this without any issue though because she totally makes up for this in the originality of her descriptions.
My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Vintage for helping me get a copy of this book.