Midway through Part One of The Girls, I felt distinctly reminded of “This is What Makes Us Girls” by Lana Del Rey in book form. The more I thought about it, the more that analogy seemed to work too: the ’60s California summer nostalgia, the bad girls, the bad men, the dangerous love, and the overwhelming hype before it’s even released.
But there are important differences between Emma Cline’s debut novel and LDR’s oeuvre (which I really do like–she’s very much my “problematic fave”). The first is self-awareness that allows deeper introspection of its own themes. The second is that Emma Cline, like her watchful narrator, is far more interested in girls than men.
In 1969 Northern California, Evie Boyd is 14 when she first sees Suzanne. The privileged granddaughter of a movie star, Evie nonetheless comes from a troubled home life and is immediately enthralled by the older girl–even as it turns out Suzanne and her gal pals are actually members of a cult with a charismatic leader who is very, very much supposed to remind you of Charles Manson.
Bailee Madison as Evie Boyd and Grace Phipps as Suzanne Parker.
It actually took me a while to get into this book. I’m not an expert on the Manson murders, but I know enough to find the direct parallels–the record contract ambitions, Suzanne’s name (presumably a reference to Susan “Sadie” Atkins), the heart drawn in blood evoking PIG–a bit too on the nose and distracting, if not possibly insensitive.
I also had some problems with the writing. At times, it really did feel like a young writer’s book fresh out of workshop where you could tell the author was trying really hard to make every line sing. And personally, I didn’t care for all the sentence fragments.
Honestly, I could see Father John Misty down to play Manson.
But Cline is definitely a talented writer. There really are some great, electrifying lines, with memorable metaphors and strong dialogue. The story, characters, and themes–the objectification and dismissal of teenage girls, the power of their own agency and desires, and above all, how society cultivates in women a dangerous need to be loved–truly did get under my skin, at times painfully so.
THE GIRLS is not a perfect book, but it’s a startling and powerful one, a promising debut that deserves its attention. I’ll probably think about it for a while. It’s a book I wish I could have read as a teenage girl. And the last line is unforgettable.