I picked up an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of THE GIRLS at the AWP conference, long before I knew about the pre-publication buzz surrounding Emma Cline’s debut novel. I didn’t want to wait to see what the fuss was about, so I decided not to save it for next year. I found myself disappointed.
THE GIRLS tells the story of Evie, a California teenager who gets swept up into a Manson-like cult. Now an adult, Evie is forced to remember her summer with the cult when a young man and his girlfriend Sasah interrupt her mundane life and ask her for all of the gory details. Russel, the charasmatic leader of the cult, isn’t what draws Evie in. It’s the girls that surround him. Evie admires their easy confidence, the way they seem to fully occupy the space the take up.
“They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park. Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriends’ hands. … but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks braching the water.”
Evie focuses her story around Suzanne, the Susan Atkins of this Manson story. Everything that Evie does in this novel is always for Suzanne, not Russel. It’s Suzanne’s rejection that causes Evie to leave the cult. Cline captures the complexties of female relationships. The words we share with each other can often be infinitely more powerful than those that men bestow.
In his review for The New York Times, Dylan Landis notives that despite the novel’s clear parralells to the Sharon Tate murders of 1969, Cline “witholds the truly vicious Manson”. While Landis is right, this does keep Evie sympathetic and more or less innocent in the reader’s eyes, it also pulls back from the story of a charasmatic man that draws in women. It lets us focus on the relationship between two girls who are trying to make their way in a world that’s a mess. However, Landis is correct in pointing out that by shying away from the violence that characterized Manson’s cult “what results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk.” Something is lacking as the novel starts to draw to a close. I continually waited for adult Evie to take some form of action and struggled to empathize with her through the second half of the novel.
It’s also worth taking a brief moment to note the beauty of Cline’s prose. She has a masterful command over language, excelling in moments when Evie stops and notices the mundane. The New Yorker pointed out a passage that lets Cline’s writing glisten:
“Suzanne always took a long time to get ready, though preparation was mostly a matter of time and not action—a slow shrug into herself. I liked to watch her from the mattress, the sweet, blank way she studied her reflection with the directionless gaze of a portrait. Her naked body was humble at these moments, even childish, bent at an unflattering angle as she rummaged through the trash bag of clothes. It was comforting to me, her humanness. Noticing how her ankles were gruff with stubble, or the pin dots of blackheads.”
While the hype for THE GIRLS can set up a reader for disappointment, stay for Cline’s writing. Stay to see the powerful relationship between two girls. Stay to hear the story of Suzanne, who may be misled, but lives unashamed of her choices. Stay for Evie, who still struggles to understand a world where people like Russel and Suzanne live.