This review starts with a personal confession- I like stories of true crime. There, I said it. That wasn’t so difficult. My XM radio is often tuned to HLN’s Forensic Files and when I can’t sleep at night there’s nothing I love more than a jaw-dropping episode of Snapped. I find that the truth often is stranger than fiction and I am fascinated by these types of true stories and what insights they offer about the dark side of humanity. I also love debut novels. The chance to read a writer’s first foray into the spotlight is an enthralling experience.
Emma Cline’s first novel, The Girls, received a great deal of buzz in the world of publishing and came with a hefty two million dollar advance. The fact that it was also a New York Times bestseller was an inevitability. The plot revolves around a young woman in the late 60’s who becomes an acolyte in a cult loosely based around Charles Manson and his coven of young girls. What I encountered was less a story based on true crime and more a sensual and lonely coming-of-age story in which the difficulties of female adolescence are intricately and viscerally portrayed.*
The novel shifts back and forth between the present and the past with Evie Boyd as the central character. While the majority of the novel takes place from the eyes of 14-year-old Evie, a middle-aged Evie foreshadows the bloody events at the novel’s culmination as she reflects upon the situation many years later. The effect is chilling in that the reader can predict calamity even as adolescent Evie barrels innocently toward the horrific events that would occur. Cline brilliantly creates an ominous sense of foreboding that stays with the reader through most of the novel. Take this excerpt for instance:
There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts never begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline: an insistence that they noticed a strange quality to the sunlight that morning or excessive static in their sheets. A meaningless fight with a boyfriend. As if the presentiment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before it. Did I miss some sign? Some internal twinge…The question I remember Donna asking me in the bus- casually, almost as an afterthought. ‘You ever hear anything about Russell?’ But I just shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.
Russell is the free-thinking leader of a small cult of lost teens who hang on to his every word, live off of the grid, and profess a different kind of universal love fueled by wine and a large buffet of various drugs. Sounds familiar, right? Yet it is not Russell that enraptures young Evie, but rather one of his main disciples named Suzanne. This description of Suzanne exemplifies Cline’s way with prose. Words and imagery are used as adornment to the story almost the same way jewelry would be added to a woman’s outfit to add texture, sparkle, and drama. Evie recalls
That was the first time I ever saw Suzanne–her black hair marking her, even at a distance, as different, her smile at me direct and assessing. I couldn’t explain it to myself, the wrench I got from looking at her. 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.
Although written for a more mature audience, Cline is brilliant at portraying the hollow loneliness that many girls feel in their early teens. It is a time spent searching for validation, for sense of self and of meaning. Evie straddles the bland and often painful world of her divorced parents and teenaged peers with the world of Russell and his strange devotees who seem to experience intrinsic meaning and an otherworldly bliss despite the poverty and helter-skelter chaos of the ranch where they live. Evie’s reflection as an older woman is profound in the way it depicts the differences between young women and men-
I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.
There is an undercurrent of sadness running through the novel that the reader cannot escape even in his or her encounters with older Evie.
Many critics found The Girls to be too descriptive with an emphasis more on style than on substance. I couldn’t disagree more and was actually pleased that the novel was focused less on the gruesome details of the cult experience and more on the inner workings of a young girl’s heart and mind. The New Yorker put it the best in stating that the novel is
Finely intelligent, often superbly written, with flashingly brilliant sentences. At her frequent best, Cline sees the world exactly and generously. On every other page, it seems, there is something remarkable—an immaculate phrase, a boldly modifying adverb, a metaphor or simile that makes a sudden, electric connection between its poles….Much of this has to do with Cline’s ability to look again, like a painter, and see (or sense) things better than most of us do.
Perhaps this is why Cline’s debut novel had such an impact on me. It took me back to the place of being a young teenage girl- easily impressionable and extremely insecure. It’s no wonder that this is a place I am not inclined to explore often and there is a sense of peace that the reader experiences in turning the last past and being welcomed back into the comfort, predictability and perceived safety of adulthood.