Book review – The Girls

WARNING! Minor spoilers.

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On my bedside table: The Girls by Emma Cline

Why I picked it up: This novel came out when I was still working at Hachette in London and I remember a bunch of colleagues praising and applauding it. I was immediately intrigued by the cover (although the US version is better than the UK one, in my humble opinion) as well as by the California/summer/Sixties/hippie-ness aura around it. I knew it was getting brilliant reviews but I wanted to wait for the paperback, as I don’t particularly like the hardback format (plus they are too expensive). But then we moved to New Zealand and I wasn’t technically allowed to buy books, so I postponed it again, until I got a library card here in Wellington and saw they had a copy in the Bestsellers section. I grabbed it straight away.

What it is about: The novel is set in Northern California and the story is told by the point of view of Evelyn Boyd over two different time periods, the present and the summer of 1969. Present-day Evelyn seems to be dragging the remains of her teenage years loneliness with her, as she house-sits for an old friend and is reminded of her obscure and troubled past by a couple of teenagers’ remarks. This gives her the change to bring back to life her fourteen-year-old self, loundign around on long summer days and jostling between her mother’s ever-changing boyfriends and her own lack of friends.
But everything changes when she stumbles upon Suzanne: barefoot, filthy, long wild haired, stealing toilet paper from the local store. To Evie, she is the epitome of freedom. Suzanne exhales an incredibly attracting energy that Evie can’t excape. She becomes obsessed with her, until Suzanne takes her to the ranch – this excluded, dilapidated commune inhabited by an extensive group of other girls and kids and run by Russell –somebody who you will immediately dislike if you’re a woman reader, but who the girls in the book seem to adore. Evie is irremediably drawn into this circle of nonconformist, anti-establishment people.
As the story progresses, for us outside spectators it becomes more and more clear that something is going terribly wrong. But for Evie, desperate to feel accepted, living at the ranch is her chance to finally be part of something. As she retracts more and more from her old civilised life and gets more involved in what seems to her a new exotic world, everything around her starts to crumble, until the cult reveals itself in its true deadly essence.

Would I recommend it: Holy moly yes. This book is such a page-turner. When “the murder” is first mentioned, it came as a total surprise to me. Although it was clear that something was going to happen to break the placid flowing of events, I personally wasn’t expecting anything so dramatic. (But I’m also terrible at predicting anything at all, for that matter.)
However, I feel like the killing is nothing but a minor part of what the author really wants to project. What stuck the most with me is the general feeling that the novel conveys, which is more about the loneliness of growing up without points of reference, in a disrupted family, and with a desperate need to feel loved and to belong. Emma Cline is brilliant at developing a story where the pages are heavy with almost tangible sensations that require your whole body and senses to step into play: when you read you can almost feel the summer heath on your skin, the earthy smell of oaks and pines, the dirt between your toes.

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