Emma Cline’s The Girls Is Diverting, But Derivative

Hello, everyone! I recently finished Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls, a tale of one girl’s summer in a Manson-inspired cult which apparently sold for a cool $2 million advance. I gave up on reading books about bored, apathetic teenage girls around 9th grade, but I was suckered in by the punchy, cool-girl cover design. Readers, don’t be fooled. The Girls is a trashy teen lit book dressed up as a sophisticated thriller, mired with angst, female self-hatred, dangerously sexy older girls, and men so uniformly despicable that they belong in a treatise on misandry. The prose is entertaining, but overworked. Worst of all, the whole thing is tiresome. Everything from the plot to the characters to Evie’s individual thoughts have been done before. But Cline’s fatal flaw is in her protagonist: Evie is a Nick Carraway with no Gatsby to make up for it.

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How can I resist a cover like this?

Synopsis: Fed up with her preoccupied parents and longing for the glamour of adulthood, 14 year old Evie Boyd escapes to The Ranch, where the charismatic musician Russell lives with a group of teenage girls. Evie grows entranced by the girls’ carefree lifestyle and is especially drawn to their leader Suzanne, a 19 year old whose open sexuality Evie envies and admires. No idyll is eternal, and as the summer draws to a close, Evie starts to question Russell’s leadership and her place on The Ranch.

My take: I wrote about my problem with “the perfect woman” trope in literature in a post a long time ago and I think it applies perfectly here. The two main characters in Cline’s novel are Evie, the protagonist, and Suzanne, the leader of the girls in Russell’s cult. If this was truly an adult novel like it’s advertised, the dynamic between the two girls might be nuanced, but since this is really a YA book, it follows a trite course. Evie is the naive innocent to Suzanne’s worldly, alluring sex goddess. Make Evie a man and set this book 100 years earlier and you’d have yourself a moral parable about the follies of wicked women. And if you want to get into really basic religious symbolism, why not name your main character after the original fallen woman? I’m admiring Cline’s restraint for not naming  Suzanne after an apple.

I take issue with this trope because I think it promotes an idealized version of women and I especially take issue when this trope is employed by a female writer! We all have our first real love, and of course there’s some idealization involved in that process, but it shouldn’t be to the degree that Evie idealizes Suzanne. Case A:

That was the first time I ever saw Suzanne, her black hair marking her, even from a distance, as different, her smile at me direct and assessing. I couldn’t explain it to myself, the wrench I got from looking at her. She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty. And what had that girl seen when she looked at me?

To me, this description of Suzanne is entirely ordinary. She has black hair (gasp!) and is sort of pretty, sort of not. But Cline pushes the trope to make Suzanne into an otherworldly creature, and robs her of a chance to be a realistic character. It’s sad to me that  a female writer can marginalize a woman by turning her into a fantasy. Even as Evie learns about the intricacies of Suzanne’s relationship with Russell and discovers the extent of her cruelty, she is still an object of obsession. When reflecting from a distance, middle-aged narrator Evie still views Suzanne in the same light as she did when she was a 14-year-old. And this is after she knows that Suzanne is a brutal murderer.

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The Manson women who inspired Suzanne

Cline’s difficulty with multi-layered characterization plagues the rest of the novel. Besides Evie, none of the characters are developed enough to make an impression. The titular group of girls are almost indistinguishable. We have Suzanne, the fantasy, Donna, the dumb one (I think?), Helen, the hot babydoll one, and Roos, the one with a kid who is shamefully neglected. I cared more about the fate of this awful neglected child than I did about any of the novel’s other characters, including the protagonist. Then we have the collection of male characters who are either evilly manipulative like Russell, sociopathic moochers like Julian, , or predatory bozos like Mitch. No male is spared the mantle of cold-hearted sex addict, no woman is spared the indignity of being reduced to one-word traits like “hot” and “dumb.”

Cline’s shortcomings in actual characterization are difficult to reconcile with her flashes of self-awareness, which can be quite poignant:

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All the time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

How can Cline write a stunning thought like that, one that delves deep into the essence of girlhood, self-worth, and the societal limitations placed on women, and then throw it away in favor of 300 pages of a stale coming-of-age story? Throughout all her time at The Ranch, her exploits with the girls who are social outcasts and her experiences with her model housewife mother, Evie never really examines their role in the world beyond the surface comparisons. As readers, Cline doesn’t have a point besides the fact that Suzanne and her posse live outside the bounds of traditional femininity. I’m not even sure if Evie came away from this experience rejecting their actions, or if she’s always condoned it. Cline tries to create a third mode of comparison by introducing Sasha, a girl who reminds middle-aged Evie of herself. And yet still, Sasha is reduced to a stereotype. She becomes the new object of desire and fascination, the new Suzanne. Female characters need to exist outside the realm of coveter and coveted. Cline should know better.

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The Mason Family ranch which inspired Cline’s fictional version

Apart from my frustration with Cline’s characters, the book fails at a basic level: the plot. While I found it interesting enough to continue reading, there was no payoff. The grisly murder set up since the first few pages plays out in pretty dull fashion, so disjointed that any horror or suspense is quickly deflated. Evie doesn’t even participate in the act, which really bothered me. Why would Cline write her main character into a thinly fictionalized version of an infamous cult and write her out at the most crucial intersection of loyalty and morality? There’s nothing worth reading about Evie’s involvement after the fact because she never has to deal with the violent actions of the other girls, nor reflect on herself as a participant in violence. Worst of all, she doesn’t even make the choice to abstain. Suzanne literally pushes her out of the car and out of the narrative.

This was easier for Cline because it allows her to absolve Evie of any guilt. The reader can treat her more sympathetically than a character like Suzanne. But again, I wonder what’s the point of writing a book like this if you don’t want to dig deep into the psyche of the world’s Suzannes. Evie we know, Evie we understand. She’s like a moth to a flame. But Suzanne, Donna, Helen, or Roos? We don’t get a chance to understand them because Cline isn’t really interested in the substance of the story. Like Evie, she just wants to coast off the surface glamour of a story like the Manson Family and end the novel before it becomes too difficult.

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Linda Kasabian – perhaps Evie’s inspiration?

Final Consensus: The Girls has everything needed for a stellar book: a stranger-than-fiction true story, sex, scandal, murder, and the makings of a deep reflection into a teen girl’s psyche. Cline has the chops to write such a story, with a unique, if extravagant style, but her plotting and characterization are weak and fall into conventional teen lit traps. With such a familiar story, Cline needed to strengthen her novel with originality, but she gets bogged down in description. It makes you wonder what a sharper writer, like Lionel Shriver, who really explored the mind of a killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin, might have done with material like this. 2/5 Helter Skelters. 

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Eugh.
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