Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

I have mixed feelings about The Girls. In it Evie, a fourteen-year-old living near San Francisco and spending a boring summer at home with her newly divorced--and dating--mother in 1969, meets a hypnotic group of slightly older girls. She hangs out with them at their commune of sorts, steals for them, eventually meets the man who is their de facto leader, and at some point when you're reading this, you realize this novel is based on Charles Manson and his cult.

I found it brilliantly written. Ms. Cline's turns of phrase are often crystalline and perfect. It was also very easy and a fast read—I zipped through it in just about 3 days. I felt completely immersed in the atmosphere of the place and time. However, when I reflected on it further, some issues came up for me. I found the framework not really necessary, and jarring each and every time it came back into the story. I found Evie to be a convenient character who easily became an insider in the cult, while remaining an outsider. I found the descriptions of the cult rather sanitized, where the worst things were neglect of children, bad food, and filthiness (I’m pretty sure most cults are in situations much, much worse, although a lot of the badness of them is going to be somewhat hidden to the casual interloper). Evie stepped up to the edge of going on the murder spree, and then conveniently was shoved out. She didn’t make that decision, which I know was part of Ms. Cline’s point—that many of us actually could have ended up in the shoes of the murderers if we’d experienced what they had—but at the same time, it was a cop-out to not have her think it through, not have her make the hard choice, have it foisted upon her. She was a pretty bland character without much personality. And then I felt like the leap from being used sexually with some minor drug use, on to murder was too much of a leap. There should have been a more gradual escalation of the final insanity. But I think that would have been hard to write, not to mention hard to pull off with Evie still going home to her mother and the contrast she’s see there, given that as the avatar for the reader, she likely would never be put in a position of fully drinking the Kool-aid. It felt to me like Emma Cline, like Evie, walked up to the edge of a great novel, but then backed away.

Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. But it’s sad to see something that could have been amazing and instead is just really good. That said, if you don't think about it too much afterwards, I'm sure most readers will love it, which makes for a terrific summer read.

I got this book for free at Winter Institute.

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