I did not believe anything bad could happen, not really.
Growing from girl to woman is a struggle that transcends time. Emma Cline explores the peaks and valleys of this transition in her insightful debut novel The Girls.
I’d enacted some pattern, been defined, neatly, as a girl, providing a known value. There was something almost comforting about it, the clarity of purpose, even as it shamed me. I didn’t understand that you could hope for more.
Set in the 1960’s, the story follows Evie Boyd, caught in the tumultuous storm of girlhood, as she becomes easily enveloped in the acceptance of a group of girls and their Charles Manson-esque leader Russell.
I’d never heard another voice like his- full and slow, never hesitating. His fingers pressed into my back in a not unpleasant way. He wasn’t much taller than me, but he was strong and compact, pressurized. The hair haloed around his head was coarsened by oil and dirt into a boggy mass. His eyes didn’t seem to water, or waver, or flick away. The way the girls had spoken of him finally made sense. How he took me in, like he wanted to see all the way through.
The story paints a picture of the ease with which any man can turn a girls insecurities and hesitations against herself.
That was part of being a girl- you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.
The Girls explores more than just the power men wield over girls, however. The influence of a seemingly strong, beautiful and indifferent woman can be just as dangerous. Suzanne is that for Evie- someone she looks up to, wants to impress and wants to love her back.
Suzanne seemed resigned to my presence: maybe she’d seen that my desperation was bigger than any desire or ability she had to shoo me off. Or maybe the admiration was flattering, my wide eyes, greedy for the details of her.
Evie and Suzanne form an indecipherable relationship wherein Evie is beholden to Suzanne and Suzanne treats Evie like a little sister.
I was happy to twist the meanings, willfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted for me. Like the wooden toy, clattering with the silver ball I’d tilted and urged into the painted holes, trying for the winning drop.
Suzanne takes Evie under her wing, as it were and into the depths of her inner circle where Evie’s eyes are opened to a world of sex, drugs and violence.
There was so much, that first night, that should have been a warning. But even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was hard to see beyond the immediate. Russell’s buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and as soft as velvet. Suzanne’s smile blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders.
This inclusion, so deeply craved by Evie, sends her down a dangerous path from which it appears there is no escape.
Everyone, later, would find it unbelievable that anyone involved in the ranch would stay in that situation. A situation obviously so bad. But Suzanne had nothing else: she had given her life completely over to Russell, and by then it was like a thing he could hold in his hands, turning it over and over, testing its weight. Suzanne and the other girls has stopped being able to make certain judgements, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them hs occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had- the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern- had become inaudible. If those instincts hd ever been detectable at all.
The Girls begs the question “how much is too much?”. How much will girls endure before it becomes clear that we deserve better? At its core, The Girls is a story that will resonate with many. Set against the backdrop of the Manson murders with the attempt to illuminate just how ludicrous patriarchy can be, it will leave you feeling shaken and simultaneously empowered.
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.
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A review copy of this title was provided via Netgalley.