Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Girls by Emma Cline

In trying to complete the initial 40 Popsugar Challenge reading categories, I chose to read Emma Cline's The Girls next. I bought this book last December while on a trip to visit my sister. She lives on the other side of the state from me, about three hours away. It may not have been a vacation to an exotic locale, but I figured that outing definitely counts as a "trip."

The Girls was a New York Times bestseller last year, and I saw tons of hype for it spreading all over the internet. I usually end up reading popular books ages after they come out, so I was excited to read one that was within a year of its publication date. The response to this novel on Goodreads is very mixed, with some people swearing it's one of the most amazing things they've ever read and other people claiming that they hated it so much they couldn't even finish it. I was interested to see which side of the divide I would fall on.

The novel tells the story of Evie Boyd, a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Northern California in 1969. Her summer break is just beginning at the start of the book, and she isn't having an easy time of things. She is desperate to catch the attention of boys, feels inadequate and awkward all the time, and is insecure about her physical appearance. She is at a vulnerable time in her life, made worse by her parents recent divorce and her approaching transition to a boarding school in the fall. Everything seems embarrassing and sad to her, especially her mother's clumsy attempts to date again. Even Connie, her friend since childhood, is no longer much of a comfort. She's in that tricky spot between child and woman, and she is anxious to look grown up and be accepted by an older crowd.

One day while out at a park, Evie spots a group of girls hanging out. They are older teens and they seem to have an aura of freedom and beauty about them that make them fascinating. These girls don't have to care what other people think of them or worry about if boys will like them. Their carefree attitudes draw Evie to them, and before long she is tagging along with the group. She quickly forms a deep attachment to their leader, the wild and free-spirited Suzanne. 

Before long, Suzanne and the other girls invite Evie to come and stay with them at their ranch. They live with several other people, most of them women, in a hippie-style commune. They present their community as a wonderful place, where everyone loves and helps each other. They are led by a man named Russel, and everyone speaks of him with awe and longing in their voices. He is aspiring to become a musician, they tell her, and it's only a matter of time until he hits it big. Evie, desperate to fit in with the group and be as free as her new friends, goes along with this unusual living arrangement and begins spending more and more time at the ranch. What her age and vulnerability prevent her from understanding (or perhaps from acknowledging), is that her new friends are a cult and that Russel is their abusive leader.    

The living conditions at the ranch are terrible and dirty. Everyone is filthy and malnourished and no one has anything resembling a job or money. However, the alcohol is flowing and the pot is plentiful, which makes up for a lot. Evie falls into their lifestyle of being constantly stoned and drunk, so she doesn't mind the grime and lack of basic necessities. She also participates in sexual encounters with Russel, just like the rest of the girls at the ranch. At first she's uncomfortable with this, but her desperation for male attention and deep desire to stay friends with Suzanne soon erase all of her concerns. She also starts participating in petty crimes, like stealing money from her mother's purse and breaking into homes, to try and become an accepted member of the group. At one point she is disturbed to realize that she has reached a point where she will do anything Suzanne or Russel ask her to, no matter how crazy it is. Her attachment to her new friends is too deep for her to walk away.

As the summer wears on, things at the ranch begin to break down. Russel enters into a conflict with a musician who was supposed to help him get a record deal. When the deal falls through, Russel is furious. He enlists some of his girls to go and teach this musician a lesson. His power over them is so complete that they agree to commit a heinous act of violence against this man. Evie is caught up in the middle of these plans; slowly, she inches closer and closer to participating in something that would destroy her life.

The Girls is a very powerful novel. Cline's writing is distinctive and dark, and her observations about the mind of a young girl are stunningly realistic. All of Evie's insecurities and worries felt real and mirrored many of the thoughts I had growing up. Cline's ability to put that difficult, vulnerable time into words is impressive; it also has the effect of creating a fantastic unreliable narrator in Evie. Mature readers know that things are horrifying at the ranch, and Evie's teenage rationalization of the situation is quite off-putting. She is so lonely and so desperate to fit into a group that she becomes the perfect target for Suzanne and Russel. While the idea of a fourteen year old girl falling in with a cult seems rather farfetched, Cline's characterization makes it understandable.

Another effect of using a vulnerable teenager as a narrator is that it eliminates a lot of detail about the other characters and daily functioning of the cult. Evie is a typical self-absorbed teen. Her narration focuses mostly on herself - how she feels, what she thinks, etc. This deepens the mystique of the group and allows suspense to deepen throughout the story. The events in this novel are based off of Charles Manson and his group of followers, but names and details are changed. Because of this, the reader knows that terrible things will happen, but remains unsure on the specifics of how everyone will end up. While some reviewers noted this lack of details on the cult as a weak point in the novel, I found it to be a strength. I felt like the hazy details of life on the ranch matched up with the psyche of a fourteen-year-old girl who was not only desperate to belong, but drunk and high much of the time as well. It felt like the right amount of information was given.

 Besides, at its heart, this is not a story about a cult at all. It's a story about a young girl and how the insecurities that have been ingrained in her since childhood were easily exploited by others. It's a warning about how the typical feminine standards of beauty and sexuality are dangerous to the well-being of women. As Evie notes in the novel, she wasn't that much different from any of the other girls she was hanging out with. It only takes a little push to become trapped in something terrible that you can't get out of, and the lessons we teach girls about beauty, weight, sex, and being meek and agreeable are exactly the sort of thing other people can use to control them.

One small issue I had with the writing was that some of the imagery was pretty gross. The novel has a gritty tone, so you don't go into it expecting things to be pretty and perfect all the time, but I feel like Cline may have went a bit overboard on some of the details. Everyone's breath, body odor, and snot were mentioned repeatedly. Bad smells were described in detail. The smell of sex, semen, or masturbation was lurking around every corner. Everything was described as being dirty, smelly, or both. It irked me after a while. Overall though, this is a minor criticism. The important stuff in the novel, like characters, plot, and emotional impact, were great.

Ultimately, I thought that The Girls was a great read. It was well-written and had a lot of important things to say about female adolescence. It was just the right blend of chilling, suspenseful, and emotional. This was Emma Cline's first novel, and I think she is definitely an author to look out for in the future. I'm very glad that I chose to pick this one up.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book you bought on a trip) 38/40
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 35/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 45

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