The Girls by Emma Cline
Random House, June 2016; 355 pp
Reviewed by Kimberly Gibson
In her debut novel, Emma Cline uses Manson family-style murders as a backdrop for her story of a young teenage girl’s emotional turmoil. Evie Boyd, the protagonist of The Girls, slips from the inattentive care of her divorced parents into the influence of a beautiful girl she meets in a park. Starved for love, Evie clings to this intimate group of girls and allows herself to be seduced by their acceptance and that of the commune’s leader, Russell.
Cline reveals the plot to us in flashbacks from middle-aged Evie, who, though aware of her former abuse, still succumbs to nostalgic feelings about her past. The problem with giving us two timelines is that Cline so completely abandons the older Evie that we wonder why she’s even in the story to begin with. For my part, the more moving story is with the older narrator, and I wish she had more to do than just remember events. Instead, the story of young, underage Evie takes precedence, and there are very uncomfortable statutory rape scenes given in detail.
In Cline’s defense, these scenes are told fiercely from the feminine perspective, and her plot never wavers from the titular focus. This is a story about girls and how girls rage and need and love. There is power in that focus, yet this is never going to be a safe or pleasant story, and I felt released from something heavy when it was over.
Despite the unpleasant and unrewarding subject matter of this book, I fell a little in love with Cline’s imagistic writing and darkly wise observations:
I should have known that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains. Some violent daydream prompting their guilty exhortations to ‘make it home safe.’
Lines like those redeem some of the horror of this story, and I found myself reading for the glimpses of poetry.
My eyes were already habituated to the texture of decay, so I thought that I had passed back into the circle of light.
Cline is a talented writer, and if she develops a less oppressive story in her next novel, I might read it.