Looking for a book about a grisly murder spree, cult-like drama, the manipulability of human nature, and what it’s like to be a girl? It’s all wrapped up in one fascinating package in Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls.
About the book: Evie Boyd is a fourteen year-old girl in California. The year is 1969. Every minute of her life is taken up by discovering what it means to be a girl and assessing the ways her world is shaping her. When she meets Suzanne and the other girls, she is swept up in the the loving atmosphere of a new sort of family where finally, finally, she finds the attention she’s been hungering for. It’s an era where a girl can run away from home just because she’s bored, turning up days later for food and money without anyone wondering whether something is wrong. Perhaps there were warnings she missed, signs she didn’t want to see. Evie is older now, and an encounter with a young couple interested in the murders of 1969 sends her thoughts back to that summer when she chased what she thought was love and found herself obliquely involved with a horrible crime.
The Girls reads something like a stream-of-consciousness narration, slipping easily back and forth between the present borrowed house and unexpected guests, and the past on the ranch with Russell, Suzanne and the girls. The story, however, is clearly well-formed, as though the streaming thoughts are an old habit, a story picked over for years, every detail overturned for hidden meaning and objective explanations that convey the innocence and desire of the fourteen year-old girl with all the insight of the woman who grew from her. Evie considers the nature of girls with the closeness of someone who was one but has grown distant, almost as though she no longer feels she belongs to the species. The qualities are still there, still surface slowly when some change in Evie’s world stirs them up, but Evie has retreated from the world–or the world has pushed her out. She no longer feels a part of something bigger. This may be why she can see so clearly how her gender affected her life; the book is full of commentary on the rules and limitations of girlhood.
“I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.”
It’s more than a piece of Evie’s identity, though. Being a girl may feel a bit like having a particular role thrust upon her, but even when she isn’t acting, the fact that she is a girl defines her. It makes her parents lenient and generous. It makes men notice her. It is the link in her friendship with Connie, the reason Connie’s older brother tolerates but pities Evie’s romantic attention, the reason the young neighbor boy would do anything she asks. It is the reason fourteen year-old Evie practically worships the ground Suzanne walks on–Suzanne, the older, beautiful girl who makes things happen without trying and exists so effortlessly. Evie loves Suzanne, in the way that a girl loves the symbol of what she wants to be, but everything else that’s happening confuses her feelings. Suzanne is connected in Evie’s mind to the stages in which she loses her virginity, connected to the crimes that continue to instill fear in Evie years later, and connected to adult-Evie’s ability to walk about the world freely rather than spend her life behind bars. Evie wants love so badly when she meets Suzanne–the close attention she receives from no one else, and the promise that she is desirable. Suzanne sees that need in Evie, and uses it.
“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”
There is markedly little tension in this book; the reader is informed early on that a notorious murder took place and that Evie was closely involved with the perpetrators, if not the act itself, which makes the culmination of the story less mysterious. We see Evie’s dull future before her colorful past, a glimpse of how things have ended up before we know exactly why. Although the level of suspense in The Girls is minimal, the story is, nevertheless, a page-turner. Emma Cline depicts Evie’s 1969 life so visibly that it’s a shock to look up from the book and see the modern world still chugging onward. Having Evie narrate from the future allows for the book to prompt us onward–teenaged Evie doesn’t notice warning signs or understand much of what was happening outside of her own experience, but future Evie can weave those details into the story, foreshadowing to remind the reader that despite how innocent it seems to follow wherever the world should take her, Evie comes very close to disaster. Maybe she even wishes she’d gotten closer. These retrospective thoughts push the plot along and leave room for Evie’s speculation on what it means to be a girl, those relatable insights that bring the real horror of the murders to the reader by proving it could have happened to her, or perhaps to any of us, caught up in ideas of love and malleable to change. Evie only wanted to be noticed, as we readers want to be noticed, as Suzanne wanted to be noticed by Russel, as Russel wanted to be noticed for his music.
“You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. The story is so clear you can almost see it–I’ve rarely encountered authors so adept at both physical descriptions and the sort of philosophical musings of meaning that Evie attaches to her memories of that fateful summer. Evie has a shrewd eye for the world around her, but it’s the umbrella statements about girlhood, life in the 60’s, and love that really draw the reader in and show how easy it might have been for Evie–or anyone–to be involved in hideous murders she had no personal desire for. Her statements about the lives of girls show how fragile humanity is, how thin the line between right and wrong and reason, and how difficult it remains for Evie to determine which side of the line is better in the end.
- Caroline Kepnes’ You is another great example of a novel that tests the theory that everything is black and white. Joe Goldberg does some bad things, but maybe he does them for good reasons. Maybe that makes it okay. Maybe you want him to get away with murder. Check out my review here to find out more.
- I hesitate to recommend a book I haven’t read yet, but this one’s a well-known classic that I think would go really well with The Girls: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which is another story about what it means to be a girl in this world, and how sometimes that can be tragically taken advantage of. Lolita is on my TBR list for September, so you can look forward to a more complete review in coming weeks and perhaps add it to your TBR, as well!
What’s next:Eileen Cook’s new YA thriller With Malice is a great book to pick up before the fall season really sets in. Two friends take one last adventure before their high school graduation sends them in different directions, but the trip to Italy turns into a disaster. One girl comes home in a body bag, and the other can’t remember anything that’s happened in the last six weeks. Now people are saying it might not have been an accident.
This one’s groovy.
The Literary Elephant