This debut novel by Emma Cline is the latest “kid” on the bestseller “block.” In what seems to be a phenomenally short span of time, it seems to be everywhere—on the radio and in magazines—and has even made it to the New York Times Bestseller list, where it is currently ranked as #3 in the “Hardcover Fiction” category and #5 in the “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction” category. Does the actual book live up to this sudden fame and hype? Fortunately, I got a chance to find out without having to wait too long and without having to buy the book—a copy was on display in the “New Books” section at my local library and I snatched it up right away to check out.
The Girls tells the story of a teenage girl, Evie Boyd, in the late 60s and how she gets into a cult led by a man, Russell, whose hippie-like, counter-culture, “let’s be free” philosophy seems like a magnet, attracting followers—mostly young and female—who will do anything for him. It is very much like the infamous cult that Charles Manson had in California in the 60s which ended in a series of murders committed by him and his followers, as a result of which he is now serving life in prison. Russell’s cult in The Girls also ends just as badly, with his followers committing four ghastly murders and eventually meeting the same fate. Evie herself was not part of the group that carried out the murders (but only by chance), so she emerges from her experience with the cult physically unscathed but mentally scarred for life. Also, in her case, it was not Russell’s magnetism that drew her to the cult but that of one of Russell’s key female followers, Suzanne, whom she is strongly attracted to.
Despite the lesbian undertone, The Girls however, is far from being a love story, gay or otherwise. Instead, it is an exploration of the mental make-up of someone who can be seduced into giving up everything—home, family, friends, ambitions, creature comforts, in short, a normal life—to go live in a commune where everything is shared, including space (mostly cramped), clothes (mostly bedraggled), food (always scarce, and frequently needing to be scavenged or stolen), chores (cooking, cleaning, farming, etc.), parenting (with no birth control, free sex, and so many girls, there are naturally many pregnancies), and pretty much any other aspect of life. If it sounds awful, it really is, and Cline does a good job of illuminating how someone can be lured to such a life, particularly someone as young and impressionable as Evie. Of course, the fact that she comes from a dysfunctional family with her parents getting divorced seems almost a given—would anyone from a normal, happy family be so susceptible to being brainwashed and exploited?
While I greatly admired the book—it was very well written and especially remarkable coming from someone so young (as the photo of Emma Cline on the jacket cover and her brief bio seem to suggest)—I have to say that I did not find it particularly enjoyable or entertaining. It wasn’t a book I “couldn’t put down,” and it was my curiosity about why it was such a hit that compelled me to stick with it till the end rather than give up on it sooner. Of course, books that are entertaining often do not have a highly evolved writing style and are universally panned by critics, and The Girls seemed more of the reverse kind of book—one which would greatly appeal to critics but not that much to readers.
Books that are beautifully written and impossible to put down are a rarity, but they do exist—unfortunately, I did not find The Girls to be one of them.
Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: June 2016
Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.