That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. 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. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward. They weren't hiding anything.
Cline's debt novel follows a teenage girl named Evie, living in the summer of 1969 in California, she sees a group of dirty, tough but strangely enigmatic girls in the park, stealing food from bins and learns that they are part of a group following Russell, the charming musician, living on a ranch together getting high and practicing 'free love' while he vies for a record deal from his famous friend Mitch.
If you feel like this rings any bells that sound like 'Charles Manson', you'd be right. This is essentially a fictionalised retelling of the the events surrounding the Manson 'Family' who formed an infamous cult-like group in the late 1960's. When I learned this I was worried this would read like a strange 60's style Phillipa Gregory novel*, but I needn't have feared. Cline simply uses the events of the time as a tool through which to explore a multitude of issues and ideas and it works beautifully. The Girls is an incredibly compelling novel and would make an excellent summer read for people looking for something with more substance and power than the usual Marian Keyes.
I also worried that the book would entail me watching a young girl fall for and fawn over the Manson stand-in Russell, and that the novel would be a 'love story', but it isn't. Well it is, but Russell isn't in it. This is a love story between the girls, and then mostly between Evie and Suzanne, one of Russell's major followers. The energy between them crackles and burns throughout the novel, they get jealous of each other, they pine for each other's company and sleep in the same bed together. Russell is barely in this, the overarching cause and effect of the plot but in no way the story's focus. I love that in some ways Cline shines a light on the lives of the woman who became lumped as 'Manson's girls', but were never given attention as humans with stories beyond brainless followers and I loved that.
Evie is an excellent protagonist. Both unlikeable and incredibly relatable, she is that sullen shrugging teenage girl who can;t stand in a way that she feels she looks natural and searches desperately for any glimmer of what might look like affection from the boys around her. Cline does an unbelievable job of capturing the depth and complexity of the inner lives of teenage girls, which are often dismissed as shallow and shrill. For me personally it actually became uncomfortable to read in parts, just because the exploration of the ways in which teenage girls, just like me and my friends were, allow themselves to be manipulated and used and treated like shit, because finding a boy who looks like he loves you is the absolute priority.
I have become so tired of teenage girls reduced to the lyrics of '#Selfie' when in fact the every day of a girl that age is so much more raw and fraught than that. I have only seen this reviewed by other women, and I would be absolutely intrigued to know how this felt to male readers, whether it gave a different perspective on the girls they knew in their teens.
Evie exists in two times, as a middle aged woman in the books 'present', and as the young girl she looks back on. Both feel very tangible and real and although some reviews I read argue that present day Evie intruded on the main story, I found that narrative to be a wonderful contrast of the impetuous teen, with her older and wiser self. The present day story also acts as a horribly accurate commentary on how teenage girls haven't changed, and how they still allow themselves to be humiliated and mistreated in the name of male validation. Some of the scenes in the present narrative were truly upsetting, because they take place in modern times and ring so much closer to home.
The writing in this is sublime. Emma Cline knows just how to turn a phrase without sounding smug. The writing doesn't sound like it was written, which is the ultimate compliment to an author. The entire book is written with confidence and skill without ever feeling that the 'crafting' of the words impeded the flow of the storytelling... looking at you Anthony Doerr. I truly felt the starchy heat of 1969 California, and the crippling embarrassment of being caught in a lie as a teenager. Cline really is a fantastic writer... bitch.
I mean it's not perfect... I'm sure it isn't, but I really can't think of anything I didn't enjoy about this book. If you do have a sensitive disposition, particularly regarding younger teenagers and sex then maybe approach with caution but I feel that even that aspect was handled beautifully.
So yeah... Maybe read this one. I was tempted to just reread this the other day, but I have far too many unread books on my shelf to do that just yet. It comes out 16th of June in hardback and I think I may even purchase it, just so I can actually give Emma Cline some money, for this I think she deserves it.
If you made it this far, well done! My next review might be less gushy... maybe.
Thanks for reading
This review copy was kindly sent by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.