Book Review | The Girls by Emma Cline

the-girls-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: The Girls
AUTHOR: Emma Cline
PUBLISHER: Chatto & Windus
RELEASE DATE: June 14, 2016
GENRE: Adult Fiction

The Girls is an immersive coming of age story revolving around female relationships.  Although this book is often reviewed as a psychological thriller, I found that its deep allure came from its worldly and intimate narrative voice.

In California ’69, Evie Boyd is an awkward, ordinary teen.  When she falls under the spell of wild beauty Suzanne, she becomes obsessed with the older girl’s world – a free love cult led by Pied Piper figure, Russell.  Mesmerised by her new way of life and navigating her budding womanhood, Evie is oblivious to the commune’s sinister undercurrents.

Past and present intertwine in this novel.  In the opening pages, Evie is a mature-aged woman, reminiscing on her summer with Suzanne.  The narrative voice reminds me of The Virgin Suicides – heady and nostalgic.  Also, knowing where she ends up as an adult makes for an unusual angle on the story – we know the beginning and the end, but still need to piece together the middle.  Personally, it wasn’t about finding out what happened; I was hooked trying to understand what went on in Evie’s head and heart to lead her to this current moment.

I waited to be told what was good about me … All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves – The Girls

Evie’s coming of age story is an unhappy but relatable representation of girlhood.  Hungry for affection, she is vulnerable to other people’s perceptions of her and desperate to fit in.  At its core, The Girls is all about the relationships between girls – friends, lovers, mothers and daughters.  Although the other girls are lured like moths to light by Russell’s hypnotic sexuality, Evie clings to the cold and distant Suzanne – as if being near her could turn Evie into a woman.  While she’s not the most likeable person, I found the inner workings of Evie’s mind riveting and believable.

At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person – The Girls

Within the commune, Evie is blind to the growing tensions.  What she doesn’t realise is that saying “yes” when she means “no” adds up over time.  As a mature-aged woman, she is sad to look back on how happily she walked into danger just to fit in, including the dark revenge plot that made the cult famous for years to come.

Everyone, later, would find it unbelievable that anyone involved in the ranch would stay in that situation. A situation so obviously bad. But Suzanne had nothing else: she had given her life completely over to Russell, and by then it was like a thing he could hold in his hands, turning it over and over, testing its weight … It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had—the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern—had become inaudible – The Girls

I also enjoyed the depth of the mother/daughter relationships in The Girls.  Following her divorce, Evie’s mother embarks on a self-discovery quest, flinging herself into new romances and health fads at the cost of estranging her daughter.  I was fascinated by the role reversal when Evie is an older woman, taking care of the girl who crashes overnight at her house – now that the tables have turned, she intends to show the motherly affection she never experienced.  However, she finds the girl’s defences hard to breach, just as she barricaded her true self to adults at that age.

I thought that loving someone acted as a kind of protective measure, like they’d understand the scale and intensity of your feelings and act accordingly. That seemed fair to me, as if fairness were a measure the universe cared anything about – The Girls

I feel like The Girls is the perfect stand-alone novel – the beginning, middle, and end form a complete and compelling story that haunted me after reading.  Emma Cline clearly knows how to write raw characters motivated by strong inner beliefs.


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