Don’t judge a book by its cover. But, you have to admit, the cover for Emma Cline’s The Girls is striking and evocative. Peter Mendelsund‘s artwork is haunting. Turning to the novel, I was initially turned off by the writing until around page fifty to seventy. There were descriptions that didn’t work for me. They felt too forced. For instance, “I ate in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat.“ I can kind of see how parmesan cheese could appear like moss. Or how one could spread a mossy layer of it on spaghetti. The final sentence, “The nothing jump of soda in my throat,” is incredibly vague. What is a nothing jump? How can something be nothing and yet also jump? There are more moments like that throughout the novel. What brought me back into the book?
First, the plot starts to ratchet up around page seventy. Evie, the narrator, connects with the girls in the cult and her slide into the group begins. Before that we follow Evie through her dragged out summer. She’s fourteen. She’s having a falling out with her best friend. It’s one of those summers as a child / teenager where the promise of fun is replaced with a sprawling repetition of days with nothing to do. It’s tough on Evie, and a little tough on the reader.
The other way I came to terms with some of the descriptions was by looking at it through the lens of first-person. Is this Emma Cline or Evie Boyd? I rationalized it was Evie Boyd. It was how she saw the world and in that way it stopped bothering me.
What I found intriguing about the novel was Evie’s slow process of acculturation with the cult. She’s a pretty normal girl at a vulnerable moment. Her parents are recently divorced. Her dad lives in L.A. with his girlfriend. Her mom is trying every new-age fad to rediscover herself and meet men. Evie is left alone. It’s that loneliness which drives her. What’s more interesting too is that she’s not blindly following the cult leader, Russell, but that she is in love with Susanne, one of Russell’s loyal followers. The interaction between Evie and Susanne is a struggle. Initially, it seems like Susanne is trying to protect Evie. She wants to push her away. As Evie stubbornly follows through, Susanne takes Evie in, but the relationship is manipulative, hurtful, and full of longing. There are moments of incredible pain that Evie suffers through.
We know from the first few pages where the novel is heading. It’s loosely modeled on the Manson Family killings. We know Evie didn’t take part in the killings, but we don’t find out until later in the book how different her life could have been.
Structurally, The Girls, reminds me of T.C. Boyle’s The Women and The Inner Circle. All of these novels are about a famous person, but told from the perspective of a character on the outskirts of that scene, someone who was there, but was too unimportant for history to remember. The main difference being that Emma Cline created a cult-leader based on Charles Manson and T.C. Boyle used the real people as characters in his novel.
The Girls is a haunting novel. It edges into mayhem. It’s an old fear of the stranger at the door. It’s the doubt inside you in the long dark of night.