Emma Cline’s debut novel has been poised to be the “it” book of the summer. But is it any good?
Much of the buzz I heard about The Girls focused on its fictionalization of the Manson murders. But this book is less “Helter Skelter” and more “She’s Leaving Home.”
The book’s narrator, Evie Boyd, is a middle-aged woman looking back on the summer when she was 14, confused and lonely and intensely curious about sex and adulthood but lacking any guidance from parents. And so after living “alone” for so many years, Evie takes up with a young woman named Suzanne. The disheveled and seemingly independent Suzanne fascinates Evie from the start: “She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.” And so Evie follows Suzanne to Russell and the community of hippies formed around him, looking for a new way of living.
The first chapters of the book, where Evie is in stasis, trying to figure herself out, are slow and don’t offer much that seemed original to me. The writing is sometimes nice, and sometimes overworked. The line quoted above is a typical example–evocative, but drawing too much attention to itself. The story improves as Evie joins Russell’s community and tries to understand that world and figure out her place in it.
In a way, Russell’s community, as dysfunctional as it is, is a microcosm of the larger world. Evie finds herself going along with rules that don’t make sense, and ends up committed to people who don’t necessarily care about her. She’s glad for the attention and the chance to identify herself as something special, so she doesn’t see that she’s just being who she’s told to be.
Much of the attention that Evie receives and gives is sexual, and it appears that it’s the only language women around her really have. In fact, the framing device of Evie talking to young relatives of a friend shows the same drama playing out, as a young woman accepts intolerable circumstances for sexual attention, the only attention she gets. It’s only when Evie is able to spend time with a woman who is in a relationship but also herself, ready to walk away, that she’s able to see the disorder and degradation she’s living in. But even then, she can’t quite walk away on her own.
As for the Manson-esque murders, they’re not the focus on the book, and I wonder if the book would be better without the specter of the murders looming. What role do the murders play in the narrative? Are they meant to show female fury unleashed? I don’t buy that, not when the women are acting at a man’s behest against people who’ve done nothing to them. Perhaps it’s women’s frustration and powerless lashing out. Or maybe the role of the murders is merely to build tension, which seems a little cheap to me. But cheap or not, wondering how they’d play out kept me reading, so if that was the intent, it worked.
As for my initial question of whether this book is good, it is. I’m not sorry I read it. But I’m not convinced it’s an “it” book with staying power.
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.