Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

Book Review

Review of The Girls by Emma Cline

Being loosely based on the Manson Family cult, apparently selling for a $2 million contract and written by an author who's only 25 years old, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House) was a must-read before it was even published.

I'd seen lots of good reviews of the book and also a couple of ones that hated it, so I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about.

Book Blurb:

Northern California, during the end of the violent 1960s. At the start of the summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon Evie is enthrall to Suzanne, a mesmerising older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged - a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realise she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl's life when everything can go horribly wrong."

Let's start with the good things, shall we?
Cline is brilliant at capturing the feel of obsession, especially the sort of besotted teenage girl, moony infatuation that I remember getting. You'd get 'crushes' on other girls, not sexual, but more that you wanted to copy everything they did or at times be them. They seemed to shine bright in life while you limped along behind in the shadows.
Evie's worship of Suzanne is believable, at least for someone her age.

Cline also captures how girls view others and where they place themselves in this group.

"It was an age when I'd immediately scan and rank other girls, keeping up a constant tally of how I fell short."

I found this attitude of Evie's irritating sometimes, but I think it was more that I was irritated at my younger self for doing such things. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to shake some sense into, especially when she was being particularly slavish to Suzanne or deliberately naive, yet I always felt for her and found her very believable. She wants to escape the undanity and meaninglessness of everyday life and sees "the girls" and Russell as a way out.

The fact that Evie is more obsessed with Suzanne than the Manson figure of Russell is interesting. Though she does get drawn in by Russel's mafnetism it is Suzanne she wants to be with and I liked this way of looking at the Manson story, she was drawn to the group, not just its leader, for its other way of living.

Some people have wondered how Emma Cline can write about the Manson family when she's only 25 (it's so depressing when authors are younger than me) and wasn't even born at the time. But I feel ultimately the themes of obsession, misplacement and insecurity are felt in every generation and young girls, and boys, can be easily led by hero figures.

Which brings me onto Russell, the 'Manson' of the story, which is one of the things I didn't quite like in the book. I just didn't feel he was magnetic enough, or his ideas were persuasive enough to have all these girls in awe of him. Cline has made him perfectly creepy, but there's meant to be a draw there too which pulled all these people to him, but I couldn't see it. I know that it is Suzanne who Evie is really there for, but she's supposed to be pulled in by Russell as well and I just did not find his character strong enough.
In fact, all the male figures in The Girls tended to be less well drawn than the female, not stereotypes exactly, but with less realness than Cline put in her female characters.

Maybe its because I knew about the Manson murders, and nearly everyone who reads this will, so I started off knowing the book was going to end in blood and that the figure of Russell would be the central reason.

That's another problem I had with The Girls, though it's not Cline's fault; I almost wish I could read it without knowing anything about the subject matter as its really difficult to judge pace and tension when you now the outcome. While it's not exactly the same as the Manson murders its close enough to be the same thing.
At times I felt the story was a bit slow, a bit too teen angst, and I suspect I kept reading because I wanted to see how Cline got from there to murder.

One last thing I'll mention is the language of the novel, something that has divided people. It's very rich and detailed, yet in an unusual way. Cline is descriptive even of the most mediocre things.

"A glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat."

I quite liked the language, but I can see why some hated it; on occasion it was distracting, and I think Cline used the word ''glut' more than once, which no one needs to do in a book.

Ultimately, I think The Girls is an amazing first novel from a talented writer who has a real insight into most of her characters. However, it didn't quite live up to the hype, but that is usually the way with books that are so popular. I'd like to read what Emma Cline writes next, hoping that it's entirely fictional so I can judge the book by itself.

I received The Girls on a read to review basis from NetGalley. My thanks to the author and publisher.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

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