The Girls – Emma Cline

The Girls

This week’s book is ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline, which has been subject to much critical acclaim and appearing on many bestseller lists. I am not sure where I came across it, but I must have been reading a book blog, or some article, as there was a screen shot of it on my phone. When I finished all my books and went into Waterstones, I looked everywhere for this, and any number of books on my to-read list (2 sides of A4, and counting), and could not find it. Turns out it was downstairs, right by the front door, and it was a hardback. Good spot, Amy.

Normally, I am not a fan of a hardback, due to the higher price point than a paper back, but I splurged, so desperate was I to read this book. When I first started reading, I got really sucked in and my initial impression is that it was loosely based around the Charles Manson murders, and the women that surrounded him, similar to ‘Aquarius’ (a TV show I only watched one episode of, mostly for David Duchovny), but when I discussed it with people, they just said, more loosely, that they had heard it was based around a cult. Either way, you have a young girl that gets sucked into a situation with older women (really just teenagers themselves), centred round a charismatic male leader.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but to me it didn’t quite live up to its promise. The prose is wonderful, and the author has this knack of catching the every day experience, the small, in between things, and the things we take for granted. But what my initial takeaway was is the way she has captured the teenage girl experience. It was like I was back there, living that life again. For example, there is this quote about the protagonist, “She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience”, and I have been there. I have been that girl, who only realised her ignorance years later. It made me think of that Oscar Wilde quote, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything”, and this is an idea that is represented through the book. You do think you know everything at that age. But as I read that line (the Cline line, not the Wilde line), I felt my heart clench as I could relate to it so much. The descriptions of how the world was, how you view things at that age, it was so accurate.

The novel itself flicks from the modern day, with the protagonist as an older, middle aged woman, back to her younger self, in 1969 when she became friends with a group of girls who idolise an older man, a wannabe musician, and they all live on a dilapidated, run down range, living hand to mouth. The protagonist reflects on her memories, which are brought back by interacting with the son of a friend, who makes reference to her having been in a cult when she was younger. As we explore how she joined that world, the author starts to create a sense that anyone could be forgotten from their own life, and brings forward the desperation of trying to find somewhere to fit in. To find a place in the world, and the actions people will take, and the lengths they will go to get there.

It is also clear from the beginning of the book what the ending will be, what having joined this cult will lead to. There is no mystery, apart from the detail, which really is what everyone wants to know. It builds up a pleasant anticipation of the horror that is to come, and you wonder how far the protagonist will go, what she will do to find her place in this world. There are also comparisons drawn between the hectic, disordered world that she wants to be a part of, and the organised everyday world where everyone else is, and it becomes clear that everyone else is just pretending, that everyone else is just trying to find their own way, but the protagonist is oblivious to this. So focused is she on getting back to what she considers ‘the real world’, where people are real and authentic.

While the plot of the novel is about the cult and the protagonists entry into this world, I felt that the novel isn’t so much about this, but about what it is like to be a woman, a teen girl, and the pressure placed on women to conform, to be accommodating, to be nice and pretty and to fit in, and how even in the rejection of that, you can still find yourself still living in the same gender roles. That women feel they can’t have things unless they are told, whereas men will just take them. There is also a scene set in the modern day, which illustrates that these gender roles still exist, albeit in a different form, and while it is easy to think that these kind of situations only happened in the past, in a more innocent time, they happen in modern day too, just under a modern and different guise. That women can be strong and yet still taken advantage of, led astray because of what they think they want, and what they need to do to get it.  Their ability to let someone else, anyone else, make the decisions for them. To take the responsibilities off their shoulders as a way of removing their own failings.

The way that the author merged these ideas of women, of feminism, into the story worked, but I felt that while the book started out really well, and I fell in love with the prose and the unique way of looking at the world, I felt the plot used to explore the above fell a bit flat. The final ‘burst’, where we find out what happened, is narrated by a character who wasn’t even there, and although it is clear parts of it are coming from their imagination, it feels frustratingly false. Even in court transcripts of such an event, there wouldn’t be such detail, and although I know it was fiction, this just felt like it didn’t fit. There were too many unanswered questions at the end, it didn’t tie up properly, and while I enjoyed the novel for its insights into people, women, teen girls, the metaphors, the language, the fluency of the prose, but overall I feel as though the story overall was lacking. That it was used as a vehicle for the larger ideas expressed around women in our society.

I would recommend the book, and it is an engrossing read with a wonderful glimpse into the past, and another way of life, but I didn’t live up to my expectations. I would give it a 7 out of 10, and you should put it on your reading list.

The next book is ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout, (I love that surname!), but the post may not be up next Sunday as I am off to New York(!!!) for a week, so will get it up the following Sunday.