Last month I found out that almost everyone on my Twitter timeline was talking about a book called The Girls by Emma Cline, and it was not only my fellow and trusted bloggers, but non-literary vloggers as well, such as Lex. I did some research online and when I found out what the book was about I knew I had to get my hands on a review copy as soon as possible before Penguin Random House ran out of them in the summer.
The Girls tells the story of Evie from two moments in her life: the present, and the 1969 fateful summer in California when she first saw Suzanne. Long-haired, a bit dirty, and verging on too-thing, Suzanne will bring to mind the heroine-chic image of the 1990’s. And middle-class, and sixteen-year old Evie fell for that image like many other men and women have done ever since. From this moment on, Evie will find her own rebellion against her parents and the comfort and security they stand for, while Suzanne will let her into a new world of drugs, sex, and death.
If you are a reader of crime fiction or have any interest at all in the history of crime, the plot of The Girls will ring a bell or two. Cline’s inspiration for the book is the Manson Family and the killings that Manson’s followers perpetrated in 1969. The similarities with the Manson Family crimes are many, beginning with Suzanne’s name, inspired by real-life Susan Atkins, and the key role music plays in the story. I mention this here because it does not take anything away from the book. Evie’s story is a bildungsroman and a coming-of-age story with a dark and twisted turn. But we know from the very first page that she comes alive out of it. The novel is still built around the crimes, but Cline’s elegant and captivating prose is all about Evie and how she construct her identity at a time when the hippie culture was everywhere and middle-class values were rejected.
We were, Russell told us, starting a new kind of society. Free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy. We were in service of a deeper love. (From The Girls).
The combination of present and past narratives is quite interesting, but the present storyline failed to catch my attention. Cline is a much better writer of the teenager, tortured mind than she is of an adult, middle-aged woman, almost comparable to Megan Abbott in the way they denounce the specificity of being a girl in a patriarchal society:
The didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Oujia board.
I was surprised at how much I still identified with Evie – despite our 11-year age difference – more than likely due to the desire to escape mundane, everyday life. All the music, drugs, late-night bonfires and parties make of The Girls the perfect reading for escapism and a bit of nostalgia for a past so far away, it feels like a golden age, hence my desire to get my hands on a review copy before its release next June. I do not think the publishing date is arbitrary and I truly believe the book will become one of the books of this summer, paying back to Penguin Random House the $2 million contract Cline has supposedly signed. Forget about your job, your career, or your family. This book will resonate with anyone who has ever needed a break from her own life: long, hot, summer nights spent with friends, with barely no cares and no schedules, no deadlines. Just total freedom.
The Girls is everything it promises to be. It is an ode to a long gone age when we knew nothing about drugs, and everyone had the freedom to experiment, all through pink-tainted glasses. But it is also a retelling of a pop culture event that has captured the USA’s attention for half a century. So much so, that when a 25-year old California artist decided to write her first novel, she decided to revisit the events. If not for the story, The Girls has to be praised and analysed as a reflection of what a new generation of writers is looking back at. Or, maybe, it needs to be read as a representation of structures of power that are still at play, with Cline’s own captivating relationship with a charismatic man four times her age when she was just 13. In any case, The Girls is a novel that needs to be read for the brief break it will give readers about adult, modern life and transport them back to adolescence at a time when everything seemed simpler. But, there’s the trick: everything that looks simple has the danger of being deeper and darker than we imagined. Just like Cline’s debut.
The Girls by Emma Cline will be released next June by Penguin Random House in the UK.