The Girls by Emma Cline is a partially historical literary novel that attempts to show the effects of famous murders (similar to the Manson murders) on a girl named Evie who knew the people who perpetrated them. The Girls is a novel built on promises, many of which do not come to fruition. The most important of these promises is the idea of the murders themselves. While the thought of this oncoming violence voyeuristically goads the reader onward, the actual murders only merit a few paltry pages of description. However, where the novel succeeds is in its portrayal of how past traumas can linger in the psyches of those effected and change the way they interact with and perceive the world.
The best thing about The Girls was without a doubt the prose. It was intricate yet readable. I felt like I could read it over and over and always see new things. With short sentences and fragments, the prose often read like thought, not stream of consciousness, but as if the reader is so close to the narrator that she would already know the world and its nuances before she reads. At one point, the narrator speaks of the way they live on the ranch, a disreputable and ramshackle commune-like place in the hills of Southern California, calling it “the shared dream.” This phrase also describes the gauzy “sunstruck” way the words lift and float on the page.
Also worthy of note is the novel’s portrayal of women. Early on, the narrator says, “Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with love.” This tags a major theme of the narrative. The narrator, Evie, constantly looks at girls, describing them, projecting herself upon them, deciphering them, even falling in love, giving a multidimensional view of the female gaze. Far from being reductive of her subjects, Evie imbues them with wonderful, spiritual lives to counterpose the horrors she knows—speaking from a distance in time—that will come.
The tragic beauty of this prose is that it lays bare the narrative’s more glaring issues. With such deft manipulation of words, Cline brings the reader to expect a deft manipulation of subject, too. By this, the reader really begins to look forward to a considerable payout for the number plot threads that Cline introduces in the first sections of the novel. These include:
- a more complete description of Evie’s life as a caregiver
- more description of the intervening years between the murders and the present
- impactful scenes of the murders and their aftermath
The narrative delivers on none of these. In fact, it reads as if Cline has skipped straight from rising action to denouement. The pitiful resolution of events dumps 1969 Evie on the side of the road while the other denizens of the ranch go on the attack. Evie renders the events of the murders themselves second hand. How did she come by this version of the events? I’m not really sure. Evie’s remove from them leaves them less than impactful. The stakes are drained, and then the novel ends abruptly with present-day Evie walking alone on the beach.
Overall, The Girls by Emma Cline only partially lives up to the hype. While Cline is clearly a talented prose writer, the narrative makes too many promises that are either weakly executed or unfulfilled. Nonetheless, I’m eager to watch Cline develop as a writer. I look forward to reading more of her work.
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