The Girls by Emma Cline

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We were like conspiracy theorists,
seeing portent and intention in every detail,
wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation.

I adored and obsessed over this book, from its first sentence to its last.

When I started this blog, it was largely as a sort of motivation to finally read and reduce my slightly intimidating TBR pile – mostly books I’ve owned for several years, the lure of the bookstore being undeniable but reading time often being a luxury. And so I made a slightly absurd promise to my pouty lipped self that I will abstain from book buying for a year and indulge the backlist lining my apartment walls (this has thus far succeeded and failed in equal measure). But then an advanced copy of this debut novel landed in my lap (or slightly messy desk, rather) and I was so captivated by its premise and dreamy saturated jacket treatment, that I put my reading goals to rest and cracked its spine.

The Girls is set in sun-soaked late 60’s summer, and it takes its cues from a lurid chapter of American crime history – the Manson Family’s August 1969 killing spree. But this is hardly a novel for true crime junkies, although it never shies away from the shocking acts that inspired it; there’s a sense of looming dread from the very first page, but the novel becomes so much more.

Fourteen years old, her parents’ recent divorce and a falling out with her best friend has left Evie Boyd jaded. Bored and desperate for attention, she spots a group of enigmatic older girls – the titular – in a park and she’s soon enthralled by Suzanne, who invites Evie to their ranch commune and introduces her to the seductive Russell, a below average musician with grand philosophies and an eerie control over the girls and the ranch. And Evie is falling in love, not with Russell, but with Suzanne who becomes a sort of cruel older sister influence.

Evie’s need of Suzanne becomes central to the novel. With Suzanne, she blossoms, seduces, and feeds her desire to belong, to be seen. But there is nothing sentimental about Cline’s writing in this regard. She perfectly evokes the stinging insecurities of a bored 14-year-old on a dangerous path, but it’s never naïve or sugary. You never once forget that the girls, the ranch, Suzanne, are destructive and Evie is hurtling towards a violence and a loss of innocence. And it’s symbolic of a sentiment that haunts the coming-of-age of almost every girl. That clinging, dreadful anticipation; a certain myth-making around our entry into womanhood.

As an older, obviously scarred and more subdued, Evie at one stage remarks:

“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”

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