The debut novel by Emma Cline, The Girls, is fine. An uninspiring way to start a review, I know, but that’s exactly how this book left me feeling – uninspired. I wanted to connect with it, I read many great reviews from sources I trust and, in spite of the saying, it has really great cover art that definitely influenced my buying decision. But throughout the course of the novel, I just couldn’t develop the connection to the characters and follow their story arcs without spending much of my time wishing for more.
The Girls is one of those novels that follows a central character who’s story flips between the present day and the past, comparing and contrasting who they were then with who they are now. In this instance, the focus is on Evie and her teenage years in Northern California during the 1960s to her middle-aged years in the present day. It doesn’t sound all that exciting of a read until you find out that those teenage years were spent in the company of a Charles Manson-like cult, that’s where the drama comes into the plot.
Having seen Suzanne and her friends (the Girls the title references) in a park one day, Evie becomes obsessed and does everything she can to befriend them. Little does she know that becoming their friend means offering herself up to the control of Russell, the figurehead of a ranch full of young women who promote a new type of “lifestyle” based on love and freedom from materialism. All of which is in exchange for unquestioning devotion and service to the “cause”. Without spoiling too much of the plot, Evie leaves her broken family behind to live a new life on the ranch, a life filled with drug-fueled adventures and mishaps. At times, this is described by the 14-year-old Evie in awe of her new “friends” and desperate to be accepted and at other times, described by the much older Evie, who clearly wants to forget but cannot seem to fully let go of her past.
At points, the writing is fantastic, with descriptions so evocative it was like I could see and feel the scenes Cline was laying out before me. The feeling of driving through the sun-soaked California landscape so vividly described it was almost palpable. I loved the way that Cline was able to capture and describe those inner-most thoughts we have as young women, the power plays between friends, between children and parents and between men and women. There’s a timeless recognition that women of all generations can relate to. Those were the flash moments where I really felt for Evie or for Suzanne, completely able to understand how and why they were.
But then, in contrast, some passages were written with what seems like gratuitous graphic language that does nothing to enhance or advance the storyline but is simply used to try and shock the reader. There are chapters that read more like something out of the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit script than in keeping with the vibe of the language Cline used on either side. While I wanted to feel swept away and get that adrenaline rush of wondering what would happen next, I just didn’t feel it. We went past suspense and ended up in overkill instead.
The Girls is the kind of novel that will appeal to you if you like a bit of drama that doesn’t leave you so tense you’re gripping on to your seat while trying to turn the pages as fast as you can. I bought into the hype that surrounded this novel from its debut, but I’m not sure I understand where all that hype came from. To me, The Girls is sitting there with Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, the ever increasingly popular genre of female lead narratives with a twist which feels pretty predictable by the time you reach the last page and where you close the book not with a racing heart, but with a sense of resigned closure.