“The Girls” by Emma Cline [Review]

This is a book review by Wyatt Ehlke. 

“I’d only been to the ranch twice since the solstice party, but I’d already started to absorb certain ways of seeing the world, certain habits of logic. Society was crowded with straight people, Russell told us, people in paralyzed thrall to corporate interests and docile as dosed lab chimps. Those of us at the ranch functioned on a whole other level, fighting against the miserable squall…” (168).

Right before high school, guided by my father’s wallet and the release of the Beatles remasters, I started to dive into the rabbit hole of their expansive discography. One thing led to another, and suddenly I was deeply immersed in the Wikipedia page of Charles Manson and his notorious family. Picture me at 14, trying to imagine what it would take to convince yourself that the only solution to the world’s problems was to leave it all behind and pledge allegiance to a lunatic.

Emma Cline’s The Girls shows that the answer to this question is not simple. When the Charles Manson stand-in, Russel, is starting to gather his community, our protagonist Evie Boyd is also 14, living a boring and sterile upper-middle-class life in suburban California. During a fateful moment outside of a grocery store, Evie encounters and immediately becomes enamored with three of Russell’s girls. Through a perfect chain of events, pushed forward by Evie’s desire to break free of her structured life and gain the acceptance of one of the Russell girls, Suzanne, Evie finds herself living among the Russell family. Things go downhill from here.

One of Cline’s more interesting structural tricks here is the inclusion (and narrative centering) of Older Evie. Older Evie gets a good slice of the page count to reminisce about her experiences as a young teenager and see parallels in her current life. The really smart thing about this writing decision is that it makes the events of Evie’s past seem immediately applicable and important in the modern day. Older Evie models the thinking process that we experience when we read a good book. It’s a testament to Cline’s ability that this doesn’t fall apart on the reader—in less capable hands, it would be easy for this type of self-awareness to feel contrived.

For a reader like me, everything always comes back to thinking about how individual people fit into the larger scheme of society. In many ways, this is a book that aligns very well with my already deeply held beliefs about how the world works. Older Evie sprinkles in gems about the influence of the dominant culture all over the place, like the passage quoted at the beginning of this review. Something that I’ve been wondering: is a novel still useful if it doesn’t push your thinking to a new place, make you question whether the axioms you were previously basing your life on were correct? More to the point: is it just me, or are these world-shaking experiences harder and harder to find as we get older?

The Girls skirts around a variant of this question. Evie is thrown into a situation where her worldview is directly challenged. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember my life before Suzanne and the others, but it had been limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits…” she notes after spending a few nights at the commune. This radical change is not typical; ideas from books don’t get us to this point. Evie is totally submerged in a new type of logic. Fluency develops from submersion.

Can I really expect a book to do the same for me? There was certainly a time when I’d be more likely to say that was the case. From the beginning of my reading career, I was drawn to books where the protagonist breaks out of the dull homogeneity of life and discovers something more fulfilling. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s earnest appraisal of the importance of integrity morphed into the drugs and fake nirvana of On the Road. There’s something about a young life in the suburbs that makes any alternative seem charming. But if Kerouac had approached me and asked me to hitchhike with him, would I really have done it? It seems unbelievable to me now, but thinking back on other decisions from that era of Young Wyatt’s life, it’s hard to say. Older Evie and I can both look back at ourselves and wonder about the modes of logic that we inadvertently found ourselves tied to.

Even if The Girls hasn’t provided me with a groundbreaking new perspective of the world, it has made me examine some aspects of my worldview under a new layer of scrutiny. As a person who enjoys mathematics, there is an innate satisfaction to be found in tackling these basic axioms from different angles, seeing where a certain proposal takes them. The most interesting of these topics is how the transposition of young experiences into aged reminiscences seems to become a storm wall, intent on blocking new experiences from reaching us. We’d much rather plot out our old dramas in new permutations of the same theme. There’s a reason Older Evie’s life is stagnant, why she still feels such a profound void so many years later.

The sheer quality of The Girls makes it an easy recommendation. If, on the one hand, you want to think about how the structure of society influences our individual actions, then The Girls works as a series of introspective, connected thought experiments. If, on the other hand, you want a satisfying narrative about love, loss, and the realities of growing up, then you’re also in luck, because Cline’s novel masterfully covers these bases.

Wyatt Ehlke is a senior at Hamline University. He’s originally from West Fargo, North Dakota, and writes about mathematics over at You Can Science.

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