When you hear about a twenty-five year old earning a $2 million book deal, you expect great things. In the vein of young authors who rocket to literary stardom a la Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt, when I first heard about Emma Cline’s book deal for her yet-to-be-finished novel, The Girls, I waited in agony until it became available for preorder on Amazon. When I read it this past June, however, when it became the quintessential book of the summer, it did not hold up.
On the surface, Cline’s book has all the right working parts that would make a novel great. Set in the summer of 1969, the book follows the adventures of fourteen-year old Evie Boyd as she becomes entangled in a cult based off the famous Manson family. However, this novel sets itself apart from other retellings of the infamous family for a few reasons. First, instead of actually featuring Manson himself, Cline offers a fictionalized version, named Russell Hadrick. Second, instead of actually focusing on the murders, the novel purported to put a new spin on the classic American story by offering an in-depth look into the female relationships within the cult. This focus is evident from the first time Evie sets eyes on Russell’s followers—“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls,” who “seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.” To young Evie, who has become emotionally isolated from her family and best friend, the girls are attractive due to the level of control they seem to have over the world. Once in the cult, however, Evie becomes drawn to one of Russell’s most loyal followers, Suzanne, who has “a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her” and opens Evie’s eyes to a new and terrifying world.
This is of course fascinating territory from a psychological perspective—exploring what made Manson’s followers susceptible to him. However, once Evie starts hanging around the cult’s ranch and experiences several sexual awakenings, not much happens up until the murders. When we finally get to the story’s climax, when several of the girls go on a mission to kill a musician whose “promise” to get Russell a music deal falls through, Suzanne kicks Evie out of the car, causing her to learn about the details of the murders through the media after they had taken place. It is this level of remove that Evie’s character has from the central conflict that turned me off from the novel. Although the relationship between Evie and Suzanne, as well as the rest of the cult members, is fascinating, the murders are the obvious endpoint. However, since readers do not get to go to that place with Evie, the ending feels a little cheapened. In this way, it seems that Cline’s novel shies away from the darker nature of the rest of the cult by offering an outsider’s perspective, in which Evie is able to exit the cult quietly and continue with her life while the others are implicated.
Even though Evie is not actually at the musician’s house when the murders take place, she is still obtains a level of notoriety. As the novel oscillates from the younger Evie to older Evie, who we learn is housesitting for a friend, she comes into contact with her friend’s younger son, who, upon being reminded of her name, asks her, “You’re that lady?” and then proceeds to tell his girlfriend, “‘She was in this cult.’” ”However, this brings up a big question for me—if Evie is not even there when the climactic and perhaps most pivotal moment in the narrative occurs, why spend so much time focusing on her as the main character instead of the far more interesting character of Suzanne who was in the cult for a longer amount of time and who actually ends up killing for their enigmatic leader?
The Girls also suffers from a prose standpoint. Throughout the course of the book, the straightforward prose that pushes the narrative forward is constantly blockaded by metaphors and similes. At first, this highly stylized writing is engaging, making it seem like Cline is trying to find the best descriptions for what she is writing about. For example, when describing Evie’s complacency and need to get away from home, Cline writes,
Part of me did feel all right, or I was confusing familiarity with happiness. Because that was there even when love wasn’t—the net of family, the purity of habit and home. It was such an unfathomable amount of time that you spent at home, and maybe that’s the best you could get—that sense of endless enclosure, like picking for the lip of tape but never finding it. (31)
However, by the middle of the book, the writing begins to bog down the story, making me wish Cline had chosen to vary her sentence structure.
Overall, the novel was not completely terrible but it was not what I thought it was going to be at all. Maybe the publishing industry jumped the gun here. Maybe Cline’s next book (which is part of her three book deal) will be a knockout. Maybe the film version of The Girls will be better than the novel. The rights to the novel have already been sold and, if the story can be juiced up a bit, I might see it.
Kevin West is a second year poetry MFA candidate at Virginia Tech.