Stay in and Read: The Girls by Emma Cline

‘Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.’
Emma Cline, The Girls

Last week, I promised to recommend a few books that would be perfect reading material during these upcoming weeks of ‘self-isolation.’ Today I wanted to recommend to you one of my favorite books: The Girls by Emma Cline!

This book was all the rage a few summers ago. It has a splashy, sensational premise – a fictionalized retelling of the Manson murders, from the perspective of one of the girls in the cult – but this book is SO much more than that. It is, at its core, an exploration of teenage loneliness and longing, and specifically the extraordinary lengths that young women will go to to feel loved, appreciated, seen. It’s a heartbreaking book, but one that is so exceptionally well written and so evocative of late 1960’s California – the oppressive heat, the ‘drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets’, and ‘the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air’.

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My copy of The Girls. I love the developing polaroid cover image!

The Girls tells the story of Evie Boyd, a middle aged woman reflecting back on the summer of 1969 when, bored and alone, she fell in with a wild group of girls. They are teenage runaways, living on a ranch outside of town which is presided over by a manipulative and charismatic man called Russell. The book alternates between the past and present, as young Evie falls in deeper and deeper with these girls and their actions escalate from petty vandalism to something much, much darker.

This narrative distance from the summer of ’69 is absolutely essential, because it lets older Evie ruminate on why she became involved with these girls and gives her a level of self-awareness, maturity and insight that she wouldn’t have had as an early teen. I remember seeing an interview with Cline where she mentioned that the 1960’s was kind of a metaphor for teenage-hood itself in the book (Is ‘teenage-hood’ a word? Let’s make it a word!). When you’re a teenager, everything is heightened, extreme, exciting, full of promise.

I should say that I know nothing about the real Manson murders, except for the fact that our culture seems to be obsessed with them. Just last year, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came out! But I’m not interested in the details of the real murders and the book isn’t either, so if you’re looking for a grizzly story – this isn’t the one. Without giving anything away, the book REALLY isn’t about the murders at all, but rather about Evie’s coming of age and her relationship with one of the girls in the cult, Suzannah, who she becomes infatuated with. In fact, one of Cline’s major strengths is that she is able to really capture the nuances of teenage girl behavior and friendship:

Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.

It’s also full of achingly insightful one-liners about the difference between growing up male and female. Evie, like so many real young woman, is taught that her value lies in how others perceive her, and throughout her childhood she ‘wait(s) to be told what was good about me.’ She waits to be noticed:

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 isn’t for everyone, but it is one of my top 10 favorite books and I think it would be the perfect, immersive reading experience for these slow, indoor days of ‘self-isolation’ and quarentine. It’s an inherently exciting premise: Cults! Murders! 1960s! But the quiet, cutting observations are what really stick with you, as they have stuck with me in the years since I’ve read it.

Do let me know if you give The Girls a try, and also feel free to recommend books to me as well! I love historical fiction (of course), coming of age stories and books with lyrical and lovely writing. But I’m a pretty omnivorous reader and read across lots of different genres and styles, so feel free to toss any recommendations my way. And be sure to check out last week’s post where I talked about another favorite book, Dracula!

Thanks for reading, and I hope that you are keeping well in these strange times.

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