Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

Publisher: Random House
Release date: June 14, 2016

It’s difficult to explain The Girls without making it sound like a coming of age-story (which is not a bad thing, it’s just not a label that applies here), giving too much away or giving the impression of a much more sensationalist story. Perhaps because the central plot of Cline’s book is sensationalist, but the writing is not. And it does take place during the main character’s formative years, showing her growing up in a sort of way - but the road to adulthood is not the story.
The Girls is about a 14-year old girl named Evie, who lives in a small California town with her mother. Most of the book takes place during the summer of 1969, though every chapter begins with Evie in her 40s, and it also briefly visits her life in between those two places in time. She meets Suzanne, Helen, Donna, Guy, and Russell.

Some keywords that could describe Russell are creepy, pedophilic, insincere and unkind, but probably also mentally ill, desperate and unhappy. He’s the leader at a place referred to as “the ranch” and of the people living there; it is essentially a cult.

While the main plot is about a girl who joins a cult-like group in the late 60s, the book is not about cults or a certain time period, but rather something much more universal - the need to be seen and to belong, especially as experienced by women.

Early in the book, Evie wonders to herself if the reason there are so many more women than men at the ranch, is that they all spend their youths waiting to be noticed, while boys are busy becoming themselves. Russell isn’t really all that charming, not that great at playing the guitar, not that eloquent… Still women and girls talk about him like a kind of Messiah, lighting up when he speaks to them, following his every move waiting for some clue to how they should act. There’s such deep, almost feverish longing in all of them to be seen - to be loved and accepted too, but above all just to be seen - that everything outside of it fades away. Cline doesn’t give us much backstory for these women, but the depiction of Evie’s life, together with some hints that the others share similar experiences and scarcities, is enough to paint a picture of how the group came to form around this unremarkable man (and why they all stay). In another passage, Evie feels ashamed of how obvious her longing for others is, showing in her face, and she imagines this is why a boy she runs into seems so disgusted with her. It’s clear Russell can see this just as clearly, and uses it to his advantage. At the same time, Evie is constantly catching glimpses of the real world and intentions beneath Russell’s and the others’ facades, but is too afraid of losing the one space she feels she might belong to to take a closer look.
Cline brilliantly describes the imbalance in power Evie experiences in all her interactions, because she is, foremost, an object to be judged by the other. This is also echoed in other interactions between characters, often shaped by gender: while women are desperately trying to hide their weaknesses and flaws, men are just as bad as hiding theirs - and sometimes don’t even make an effort. And if Evie tries to hide her judgement, the men around her seem to make a point of assessing her, sometimes making her an accomplice in the act by quietly apologising that her existence doesn’t live up to their expectations.

When we’re shown adult Evie, having her life and everyday routine living alone at a friend’s house interrupted by the arrival of the friend’s son with much younger girlfriend Sasha in tow, we see that same nervousness in her. Female lack of self-esteem is the gift that keeps on giving, throughout generations and societal changes - giving to men, that is, and especially the ones who don’t deserve it. It’s an ugly portrait of human beings and their relationships Cline paints (the female friendships in the novel aren’t perfect either), but it is also a deeply empathetic one, where the reader is given the chance to feel the fear and desire behind each character’s failure to change or make a better life for themselves. The compassion leans more towards the women in the novel, but it doesn’t settle for making the men simple monsters who don’t care about consequences or other people. Rather, it’s the world that’s constantly telling men they can act certain ways and get away with it, or even that it will be appreciated, and women learn to stay quiet about how fucked up it all is. Now, I may have made this sound like a book about Evie and her encounters with different men, but rest assure this is not the case. The most important person in the story outside of the main character is Suzanne, whom Evie idolises and seems to think of as her best friend - or more - and who becomes the main focus of Evie’s longing and attempts to find love. It’s not a healthy relationship, and Suzanne ends up being disappointing in many different ways, but it’s still great to see a story where relationships between women take up so much space and importance. I would recommend this book because of the understanding of human beings the author seems to possess and her awareness of how gender dynamics play out on the smaller scenes of private life. It’s also full of perfect little phrases to convey these ideas, sometimes in a straight-forward manner, sometimes more like in poetry: by talking about something completely different. There are issues, like when Cline goes on to describe events Evie can’t possibly know much about in great detail (even though it’s occasionally explained as Evie imagining what it might have been like, or based on someone else’s testimony, that’s not enough to make it feel natural in the story) or the lack of clear purpose in the present day pieces of the story, but overall it is a well-written and moving novel. Considering this is Emma Cline’s debut novel, it is quite impressive and I think she could go on to write some truly remarkable books in the future! Tova Crossler Ernström is a bisexual Swede, feminist, socialist, INFJ, Hufflepuff, HSP and Taurus. She is fond of personality tests, labels and lists.