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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

'The Girls' by Emma Cline

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

First thing you want to know is probably about the cult, and why wouldn't you? It's dramatic and different and the kind of thing that sucks all the air out of a room. It's the hook, it's what it said in the newspaper, it says it right there on the book jacket! But pretty quickly in reading The Girls you realize that Emma Cline may not have a lot to say about cults and what the story is really about  was spelled out right on the cover: girls. And girlhood. The cult is just how we get there.


The Girls centers around Evie Boyd, 14 years old in 1969 and in her late 50s sometime in the recent past. And yes, she ends up hanging around a cult that closely resembles the Manson Family, at least in the few facts I know from popular memory. "The Ranch" is a commune of hippie-like folks centered around a charismatic leader who really just wants to be a musician. It all ends in a home invasion and multiple-homicide, including a kid and a young mother.


That sounds really interesting and could carry a novel, I'm sure, but Cline here treats it as an accessory, a shiny bauble to draw our attention to more immediate experiences. It's nearly 100 pages before we even get to the ranch and while the murders hang over like a cloud — Cline reminds us periodically with a page or two of description adding more details to the grisly scene — what is striking is the ordinariness. Cline looks beyond the cult leader show and finds a community of women that joke and play and get annoyed with each other and make the whole thing run in the days when murder is as remote a possibility as it is at any high school party. It is women that carry out the murders and women that he mostly keeps around and while they are all attracted and devoted to him, it is how they are together that attracts Evie.



The story maintains many of the elements of a coming-of-age tale — losing innocence, finding new experiences, discovering sex, friction with parents and childhood friends — but it is also different for girls, more complicated. Where sex is an achievement for boys, for Evie it is a double edged sword. It can be a power to wield, but it also can invite violence. Sex is a thing men think they can possess, and they are not kindly to women who deny them.


Evie being 14 years old adds to the sense of danger and discomfort. Like in Lolita, her youth and the age of those around her colors everything. Experiences that might be valuable and enjoyable, even empowering, are tainted by how young she is, her lack of control over the situations. I don't think I need to say much past the fact that Russell is said to look about the same age as Evie's mother. We see some of these elements replayed for adult Evie watching the young couple that stays with her for a few days, recognizing the young girl's want to be like and accepted and how the older men take advantage.


Cline's scenes are these wonderful pieces of writing that seem to grow exponentially with each sentence, like one of those spiral toys as a kid that just guide your pen in circles that overlap and multiply into a stunning design. Her first lines are generally simple, straightforward, factual, and then the scene builds. She has an eye for the details that make the whole thing turn, that cause you to feel a twist in your chest and keep you turning to the next page even when the characters have all let you down.


I definitely recommend The Girls. Put it on your holiday list, the 2017 reading challenge starts soon.