book reviews

The Girls, by Emma Cline: Thoughts

dt.common.streams.StreamServerSimply put, The Girls is about a woman’s (Evie’s) experience as a young, privileged teen in the 1960s, living on and off in a cult led by a (perplexingly) magnetic and charismatic but volatile man named Russell. Years after several of the cult members famously kill four people, an event Evie narrowly misses being part of, she reflects on her time and relationships on the ranch and attempts to explain what kept her there, as well as relates how she was affected afterward.

I bought this book because of my interest in the cult aspect of it—growing up, I was fascinated by Charles Manson and his Family, Helter Skelter and other true crime stories. (I’ve read a few comments that say if you can get past the “cult stuff,” The Girls is a good book, but that to me is utterly ridiculous, as it is intrinsically tied to this story [and Cline’s interest in writing it]—which is not just what it meant to be a girl in that time. Those books are ubiquitous.) With the same interest, Cline researched Manson’s story and loosely based The Girls on it.

This is essentially what works in the novel: the ability of Cline to recreate not only a decade and zeitgeist during which she was not alive but also to spin a believable and intriguing story of privilege versus poverty, vacuousness versus radical thought, stability versus uncertainty and volatility. Cline’s people are fully realized, from the main characters to the tertiary ones, people who pick Evie up while she’s hitchhiking, for example.

There is also a solid feminist aspect to the novel, which comes through most clearly in her portrayal of the men in the book but works well more subtly, too, in her observations of the women and herself.

One of the interesting things about The Girls is its own strange magnetism. In spite of things that irritated me, I was compelled to stick with it till the end—and it was not a slog but rather an addictive read. Not unlike Evie with her fixation on one of the girls in the cult, I found myself coming back to the book every free moment I had, even while reading was somewhat fraught. You’re propelled through by imagery—not a bad thing, because it’s the imagery that makes things real—and by a desire to find out the whole story. But in this book, that reality was spoiled for me every time I was pulled out of the story by the distraction of the writing.

In my view, The Girls is overwritten—chock-full of descriptive detail that is at first exciting in its reach for truth and in its originality but then unfortunately becomes too much. I felt as though Cline had been taught an excellent thing but in her affinity for it had focused too hard on it. This preoccupation seemed to lead into getting lost in scenes, and I often found myself impatient: get on with the story, I thought, where is the story! Or, I would have cut this; what is the point of this?

The teenage nostalgia, the capturing of the essence of “girlness,” though I related and could imagine it well, felt as though it had consumed Cline a little too much in the process of writing. It makes me wonder if mining herself, as well as her mother’s diary, for the memory of being a teen, made her lose focus, and it might have been better for her to scale back the prose in the revision stage to allow the reader to experience some things in her own way.

Even while I marvelled enough at the pinpointedness of many of Cline’s descriptions, I also found the writing somewhat unpolished, an odd mix of what I consider unskilled (lots of distracting and frustrating filtering, for example, which diluted the prose) yet astute, intelligent, and, again, original and well-imagined. Inconsistent, then.

What I would have liked to have seen is a stronger editorial hand in Cline, a paring down and focusing of the writing. This, to me, would have allowed me to be taken in solely by the story and its people, from beginning to end.

Because of her ability to suss out the essence of things and thus place us where she wants us with well-developed people, I look forward to seeing Cline hone her skill as a writer. I hope her next book demonstrates more focus and a confidence in knowing just how much can be said without saying, so that it not only places the reader in her interesting world but also lets her explore and be led without interruption.

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