Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

The Girls

I knew a lot about The Girls and Emma Cline’s publishing deal before the book was even out. It has been sold at an auction for 2,000,000 $ – together with the next, not yet written – novel and a collection of short stories. That must put a lot of pressure on the author. Another sign of a major hype is that the German translation came out at the same time as the US original. Oddly, since it’s been published, I’ve not heard so much about it or read many reviews on blogs. The title might not be doing it any favours as it makes it sound like another “girl thriller”. While it’s about a crime, The Girls is a literary novel, not a crime novel per se.

I’m in two minds about this novel. The first forty pages were terrific. Emma Cline showed major talent. Her prose was stylish and original and the approach to her topic daring, but then came the long, frankly rather boring middle section that made me almost abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t because the end was good.

The Girls is told as a split narrative. Most parts are set during the summer of ’69 and told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd; the other parts are told by the now middle-aged Evie, who’s looking back. In 1969 Evie’s a lonely girl who lives with a mother who’s just rediscovered dating and doesn’t have time nor patience. She’s going to send Evie to a boarding school. That would be misery enough but on top of that, Evie’s just fallen out with her best friend and is discovering her sexuality, which she can’t handle at all. Then, one afternoon, she sees the girls—a group of beautiful, dirty teenage girls who appear self-assured, arrogant, and wild. Evie’s fascinated, especially by Suzanne. Evie finds out later that the people in her town are wary of them. There are rumours of drug abuse, delinquency and orgies.

Evie sees them again and is invited to their farm and introduced to Russell, their leader. She’s quickly sucked into the life on the farm and becomes one of them. Being part of that group means following Russell’s every move, waiting to be summoned by him, stealing for him, doing drugs, having sex with much older men. Russell pretends to be enlightened but he’s narcissistic and deranged. What he really wants is to become a famous pop star.

Evie’s too miserable in her life to notice that something’s going very wrong on the farm. Not only are they taking too many drugs, but there’s hardly any food. The houses they live in are decaying. The whole place is dirty and insalubrious.

Early in the novel, we learn that a horrific murder was committed and we know that, for some reason, Evie wasn’t part of the group who committed it. What we only find out at the end is why she wasn’t there and what happened to her afterwards.

It’s not often that a book comes full circle at the end like this one. For a long time, I didn’t like the dual narrative, found it artificial, but it made sense in the end.

Emma Cline does a great job at showing us the world through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl. A girl that’s very much a product of her time. She manages to make us see how girls like Suzanne and Evie were easy prey for a man like Russell (or Manson). But she also shows us that Russell wasn’t the only reason for a girl to stay on the farm. In Evie’s case, it’s not Russell who has a hold on her, but the charismatic Suzanne.

At first I was a bit afraid that given the nature of the crime, the book would be too sensationalist. It is sensationalist, but not because of the crime but because of the way Cline writes about sex. The book is explicit and occasionally shocking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been marketed as a YA novel.

I didn’t find this novel entirely convincig and certainly don’t understand the huge advance payment she received. While there are great parts in the book, there are many parts that are dragging and the story was far from original. It certainly wasn’t a must read.

If you’d like to get to know her writing – here’s her only other publication, her short story Marion. It was published by the Paris Review and received the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014.

28 thoughts on “Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

  1. Interesting review, Caroline. I confess that I wouldn’t have read this anyway, because I won’t go near anything that has anything to do with the Manson murders – they’re vile. But putting that aside, it does sound like the book may not be worth the effort…

    • Thanks. I’m glad you found it interesting anyway. To be honest, I had no clue that it was inspired by the Manson murders. I expected another kind of story. The writing is great in places but I’m afraid it might be one of those cases of being published too early. I saw that newspaper critics were NOT keen on it.

  2. Very interesting to read your review of this novel as it caught my eye when it fist appeared it the UK. (As you say, the hype/expectation was huge.) I’m intrigued by the culture in California in the ’60s and ’70s, but the more I hear about the novel itself, the less appealing it sounds to me. Given your reservations, I’m pretty sure I’ll pass on it. Thanks for such a balanced appraisal of its strengths and limitations, it really helps.

    • I’m glad the review helped you make up your mind.
      I didn’t think it said a lot about the 60s in California at all. Or not about the counter-culture. I executed something in the vein of the early Jennifer Egan but it’s different. I think she was just fascinated with the Manson girls and wanted to write a book about them. In a way it was interesting but not memorable.

  3. Yours is one of the few reviews I’ve read that hasn’t drooled over this book. It’s not a subject matter that interests me much but all the hype is just adding to my reluctance to read it.

  4. This cover looks like a movie cover. Is this going to be a movie? I don’t pay attention to such things… I did read this book and enjoy it, though. I didn’t love, but I really liked it.

    • I think it would make a good movie but I haven’t heard anything yet.
      I had moments when I liked it. Especiylla the beginning and the end but it was rather like an overlong short story.

  5. There’s a lot of buzz over here about this book, but when I read it was patterned after Charles Manson I had to pass. The movie Martha Marcy May Marlene was similar and creeped me out so much.

    • I hadn’t heard of that movie. This book isn’t really creepy but odd. It shocks me a bit to think that some fourteen-year-olds could be like that. I was still a kid at that age.

  6. I didn’t love this book. It got so much hype and so many great reviews but it fell short for me. I know lots of people loved her writing but I found the use of sentence fragments to be a bit much. For anyone mentioning that not wanting to read it b/c of the basis in the Manson murders – don’t worry the book isn’t really about that. It was marketed that way (falsely IMO) but really it’s a coming of age book and much more about a young women’s psychological mindset that it is about the murders.

    • I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one. I agree with you. The murders have served as inspiration but it’s not about that. I liked her writing often but not always. There were great sentneces but soem, as you said, were annoying. Still, she tried to do something a bit different. I would have preferred if it had been more about the time it was set in and not so much about one girl only. But the end was good. It showed that you can’t shake off something like this, even if you didn’t participate. It’s possible she would have if she’d been there. I found that thought chilling.

  7. I also have heard a lot about this book.

    Though you indicate that there are strong points it sounds s little disappointing in several ways. That is a bit unfortunate as the plot and characters sound like they have a lot of potential.

    • I read a bit more about her contract and she actually sold the book before it was finished.
      I hope she can take her time with the next one because she’s a promising author.

  8. I’m reading your review at a pretty opportune moment as am about a third of the way through this book and to be honest I’m finding the middle a bit dull. I like the writing style but at the moment I can’t get into the character of Evie at all – but if the ending is worth it then I’ll keep going!

    • I hope I’m not promising too much.
      I’d love to hear what you think of it, should you make it to the end. I found that far over 100 pages were dull but the last 50 or so pages were interesting and the end gave it more depth.

  9. This is not the first time that I’ve heard how amazing the first 30-40 pages are. Which really makes me wonder if the sale was based on that excerpt alone. Nonetheless, I’m still curious. It reminds me a little of Sara Taylor’s The Boring Girls, in which things also take a very dark turn, for girls of a similar age. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to it, but I’m still interested.

    • Typically you send the first 40 – 50 pages to an agent and based on that snd the synopsis the’lll decide whether they want to see more. Normally that means you’re book should be finished but since she seems to have been lucky to get an agent before that. I’ve noticed the same with a lot of hyped books. When you take a creative writing course they teach you to pay extra attention to the first 50 pages. For that reasosn and, later, because of the ebook samples.
      It’s a sad development. One can’t really blame a young author to accept such a deal. It’s very readable. I’ve not heard of The Boring Girls but I got another one here – Girls on Fire. It also came out this year and got rave reviews.

  10. This was a popular book for a while here. There were a few weeks when I couldn’t get on the subway without seeing someone reading it. I admit that the title put me off. It gave me the sense of a “new adult” novel or a story involving young friendship.

    Right now, I’m reading The Gentleman. It’s a novel in the style of PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde — a comedy of manners set in the late 1800s in London. I’m not quite finished, but I think you might enjoy this one. 🙂

    • It’s not New Adult but I get why you thought that. I jus expected more and think I could gave done without. Thanks for the suggestion. It sounds like I would enjoy t. I hadn’t heard of it.

  11. Thanks so much for your honest appraisal of the book. At first I was drawn to it since Evie’s generation and mine are very similar. There are so many wonderful books to read so I am glad that I won’t be using my reading time for this one.

    • I feel the same. I suspect I might have liked this more if I had read it as a teenager or in my twenties. As you say, there are too many great books out there and it doesn’t deliver. I’d gave preferred if it gas looked into the era but it doesn’t really and Evie’s a bit hard to stomach. On the other hand I saw a couple of teenage reviewers complaining that the sex scenes were too explicit.

  12. Nice review, Caroline! Sounds to me a little bit like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a group of teenagers inspired and influenced by a reclusive man and someone getting killed but the main character not involved with it. Donna Tartt didn’t write sex though. I always like it when writers get paid well, because as a group writers are poorly paid and most of them need a day job to pay their bills. I am glad that Emma Cline justifies the bidding price in the first 40 pages but sorry to know that the novel doesn’t deliver in the middle part. Thanks for the insightful review.

    • It’s nothing like The Secret History which is one of my all- time favourites. Yes, it’s nice when writers are paid well but not that well. For every contract like that dozens of mid- list authors remain unpaid and unpublished. I think it’s in bad taste. Maybe not even that good for her as she’s bound by contract now. But I know what you mean. In theory I agree.

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