Spoiler alert: This review has all the spoilers for The Girls. Although, I’m not sure how you don’t know what this book is about by now (it was ALL over bookstagram last summer) and how you haven’t come to the conclusion that it ends with a murder.
Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls made a splash in the summer of 2016. Readers loved the story of Evie, a girl who flirts with joining a cult as she grows away from her mother and her former best friend and becomes entranced by a girl—Suzanne. The novel ends with gruesome murders, which leaves Evie questioning what she was and is capable of.
It was really hard for me to get into this novel for two reasons: The jumps between the past and the present were confusing at the beginning of the novel, and Cline’s word choices jarred me.
Let’s start at the very beginning: The first few pages of the novel are confusing. Cline teases two of the most important scenes of the novel but does not give enough context for them to be valuable right out of the gate. First we get a page and a half of the day in the park when Evie first sees Suzanne and the other girls. Then we read four paragraphs about the night of the murders, but it’s not apparent that this is a scene describing the murders until much later in the novel. We then read that these two previous scenes are scenes that Evie, our narrator and protagonist, thinks about a lot, especially in the present day, as she sleeps in a house that is not her own. Evie makes the dubious decision to get out of bed and talk to the strangers she hears in the house (who end up not being complete strangers); the boy reveals that Evie was in a cult, one that was responsible for a gruesome murder.
For the next one hundred pages, we hear about present Evie’s boring discussions with the kids in the house and we see past Evie’s decisions and life leading up to page 104, when she *finally* steps foot on the cult’s ranch. That’s a whole lot of exposition. I’m torn on whether it’s merited. On the one hand, it shows how these things happen; people don’t just walk down the street and join a cult, and Cline takes time showing the microshifts in rationalization that lead to someone voluntarily joining a cult. On the other hand, it’s boring.
Point of view
The novel is written in Evie’s first-person past-tense point of view as she looks back at the summer of 1969 from the present. But it’s not merely a retrospective point of view; stuff is happening in the present that is also narrated in first-person present tense. This present-tense narration jars the pacing of the book. It takes forever to get into the narrative about the cult—we have to wade through relatively boring exposition about Evie as an adult, these teenagers who show up at the house, and how normal and boring Evie’s life is before she goes to the ranch for the first time. Even later in the book, the shift between present and past is annoying, perhaps deliberately. I did not want to return to the present day and hear about adult Evie babysitting the teenagers in the house right after Mrs. Dutton catches Evie at the end of part two, but the shift does serve to take the heat off the events of 1969 and make the novel more about characters and theme than about the plot.
In the first half of the book, the past-tense narration seems to exist solely to pull the novel out of the YA genre. I was doubtful as to whether Cline would make this POV work, but although it’s not as well-executed or interesting in the beginning of the book, Cline does tie the present and the past narratives together into a more cohesive thematic exploration, culminating in the scene when Sasha leaves with Julian and Evie realizes: “But it had never been me she wanted.” And therein lies the thematic climax of the book—in both 1969 and the present, Evie does not have a “we”; but in the present, she has the hindsight to know Sasha’s thoughts and feelings because they were once her own. Evie knows the desperation of wanting to be seen and wanting to belong.
Omg, so relatable: characterization and themes
And that leads us to a major strength of The Girls: Cline’s characterization of Evie and the other girls and the exploration of girlhood. The characterization and theme of girls’ desperation and longing to belong to a “we” go hand in hand, and neither is subtly written. We understand Evie: We get into her head, see her thoughts, and can empathize with her feelings and ideas. We see how badly she wants to connect with people and the lies she’s willing to placate herself with. This characterization and exploration of a particular type of girlhood is effective and perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the novel; it lends the book a relatability factor, as even if readers have not joined a cult, they will recognize these patterns of thinking:
“I waited to be told what was good about me.” (28)
“Girls were good at coloring in those disappointing blank spots.” (139)
“Her silence seemed like a kid of love.” (146)
“We all want to be seen.” (352)
Now, let’s talk about word choice. Word choice and awkward phrasings are something that can take me out of a novel very quickly. In The Girls, there are several phrases that just didn’t seem to click with me; it felt like Cline was trying to be cleverly descriptive, but it didn’t work. The problem is that as a reader, I have no idea what effect the words are supposed to be having on me, what they’re intended to communicate. I have no idea what I’m supposed to get out of a description of a man drinking milk “lustily” (12). Or consider the sentence that ends with “…the stale crumple of a fast-food bag.” (14) How exactly is a crumpled bag stale — isn’t it usually the contents that are stale? Some reviewers have praised Cline’s use of unusual and striking language; James Wood writes that Cline’s use of language is “remarkable,” but I disagree. Cline’s word choices do not enhance the story for me; rather, they draw me out as I try to wrap my mind around what the words literally mean and what this wording is supposed to elicit from me.
The language used throughout the novel is blunt and frankly Anglo-Saxon—not many three- or four-syllable words here. The rape scenes are very graphically described, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; at least Cline avoids the urge to metaphorize and abstract sexual activity and violence, which can be almost worse than reading very blunt prose. Cline writes that someone “cut” someone a smile or a look several times throughout the novel; this seems a fitting word to call attention to, since Cline’s prose could generally be described at “cutting.” Its staccato, incomplete sentences hold readers’ attention spans and keep them interested because they can actually understand what Cline is saying. (Unless you read too carefully, as I’ve discussed above.) While Cline’s story kept me reading, the prose tripped me up, as I did not know what she wanted me to get out of her words. Sometimes, her word choice and language seemed more onomatopoeic than anything—she has an affinity for words starting with “sc-” and uses them frequently (scrim, scud, scum). I understand that some writers are stronger storytellers—and it’s clear Cline is one of them—but I wish others in the editorial process would not let awkward phrasings slide just because they know they have a bestseller on their hands.
That said, The Girls is not without its merits. Cline wrote a book that intrigues people and she wrote about ideas and feelings that people can relate to. Obviously, cults are interesting. It’s hard to find a real-life narrative about what it’s like to be in a cult because the person who is attracted to the cult is in some ways an unreliable narrator to their own experiences and feelings — they only know what they experienced, not what was really going on behind the scenes. This is why this the retrospective, detached first-person point of view is essential to the book’s internal cohesion and its commercial appeal—this view allows Evie to tell readers what was happening with Russell, Mitch, and Suzanne even though she was not aware of these happenings in the summer of 1969. This point of view allows the reader to follow the big-picture narrative of what is happening in the cult that leads up to the gruesome murder, and it is this point of view that allows readers to witness the gruesome murder as pieced together by Evie’s knowledge of the crime after the fact. This is why the particular point of view is necessary; without it, there is no climax—or at least, there is not a huge thrilling climax, but rather a more subtle coming of age climax (not that that would be any less interesting, but it would probably be less commercially appealing). And the past-tense first-person narration lends credibility to Evie as a narrator—we trust her more than we would if she was telling us the story as it happened in 1969.
Overall, I can see the appeal of this book to a mass audience, but for my tastes, it wasn’t quite there. The pacing and use of language drag the book down, and the characters, plot, and themes are not strong enough to pull it back up.