The Cult of Girlhood: Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls” and the power of teen girl experience

Note: Both the book and this review discuss sexual assault. This review also includes what some might consider spoilers, so if you haven’t read it and want to go in completely fresh, then save this for later!


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A photo of my second-hand copy of The Girls, appropriately taken in my teenage bedroom

By the time I stumbled upon Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel The Girls in hardback in a charity shop for 99p in April this year, the book had already been drifting around the edges of my awareness for quite a while. The cover of the U.K. Penguin edition, designed by Neil Krug, had caught my eye a number of times in shop windows or on Twitter and Instagram. It has that alluringly sunset-y, light-leak-y effect that reminds you simultaneously of Instagram filters and the actual photographic processes they emulate – appropriate for a book that takes place both in the present of smartphone filters and in the 1969 of Polaroids and the Summer of Love. The Girls had the look to me then of something unearthed – but also pristine, promising, glamorous, exciting. Whenever I’d come across the book before I’d always made a mental note to come back to it, and the serendipity of finding it waiting for me so cheaply and expectantly was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The novel charts a summer in the life of Evie Boyd, who is fourteen years old in 1969 when she becomes involved in a Manson-esque cult, complete with a grisly quadruple-murder in which Evie mercifully (or, the novel suggests, merely arbitrarily) takes no part. The story is retold by a middle-aged Evie in the present, and the novel divides its action between the two moments with most of its pages spent in the past.

I’ll spare you the suspense about my reaction and say that it’s some of the best writing about being a teenage girl that I’ve ever read, if not the best, and I absolutely loved it. The writing was beautiful enough that I was dog-earing every other page so I could come back to some of Cline’s spectacular turns of phrase, and, at least for me, the two timelines complemented each other and each justified its existence alongside the other.

Given the hype around the book – it was bought for an unheard-of $2 million advance in 2014, and since its publication has garnered a string of celebrity endorsements and a handful of prizes – I was not surprised to find that reviews of it echoed my amazement. But as the reviews wore on I began to get the (appropriately teenage) feeling that, yes, these reviewers got that this was a great book, but at the same time they didn’t really seem to get it. However complimentary they were about Cline’s style – the “perfect pointillism” of her prose, her “obvious talent” for storytelling – they would repeatedly come back to the Manson aspect of the novel as though it were a broken promise. Dwight Garner writes for the New York Times that “Ms. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. […]  The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem […] about the novel you’d rather be consuming.” James Wood, writing for the New Yorker, says that “‘The Girls’ never entirely succeeds in justifying itself – in making the case that there was anything personally or historically necessary about Cline’s decision to raid the American-culture store and pluck one of the best-known and most lurid episodes from the shelf. […] my admiration for its many beauties was corrupted by a worming question: ‘Why this subject?’ Without an answer, the novel comes to seem manipulative.”

These statements, and others like them in other reviews, were a bit of a sticking point for me. They all seemed to take the cult aspect of the novel as a central premise that failed to get off the ground, and this focus seemed, to me, slightly bizarre. Because after reading The Girls, I really can’t imagine a book about a cult that is less about the actual cult.

Let me explain.

Photo of Charles Manson
Charles Manson c. 1970, photographed by Michael Ochs

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Manson “family”. It’s a true-crime, true-horror classic, and much of its appeal lies in the magnetism of its central figure. I’m guessing that most people reading this won’t be able to name any of the women in Manson’s “family” who actually committed most of the group’s murders (I know I can’t) but everyone is aware of Charles Manson. He has become a special kind of dark celebrity, assailed by letters from admirers, even in prison, and remains a staple of internet listicles, documentaries, and books. The reasons for this are fairly clear: Manson typifies a kind of real-life villain that is extremely compelling for exploration in art – a seemingly-ordinary man possessive of a manipulative magic so powerful that it can transform ordinary people into murderers, unrecognisable by “civilised” society. The narrative of the innocent outsider brought into the doomed fold through their fascination with a charismatic leader is a familiar one, one we’ve seen over and over again in fiction and film – and one that these reviewers evidently expected to find in The Girls.

And yet, the magnetic central figure in this novel isn’t the Manson-inspired figure of Russell Hadrick, whom we see only dimly. Instead, it is with Suzanne Parker, one of Russell’s closest teenage followers, that Evie develops an intense infatuation. From Evie’s first glimpse of her dumpster-diving in a local park, Suzanne is the object of a fevered fascination that is not distinct from physical desire. Over the course of the novel she becomes a model of the kind of obsessive adulation that is deceptively common in friendships among teenage girls: the need to cleave to another girl who seems wiser, to see her as a guide, a role model, a kind of idol. Rather than seeing it as a disappointing deviation from the narrative of the male cult leader, the relationship between Suzanne and Evie quickly became for me the compelling heart of the novel (which, one might point out to any reviewers confused about its focus, is after all called The Girls).

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The Manson girls, photographer unknown

Indeed, the novel gives the resonant impression that to be a teenage girl, now as much as in 1969, is to engage in ritualistic worship – of beauty, as when Evie and her best friend Connie spend hours before the mirror experimenting with grooming techniques; of boys, as when they try, like “conspiracy theorists”, to divine meaning from their crushes’ scattered movements; and, ultimately, of each other. Suzanne is canonised by Evie as the patron saint of girlhood: she is beautiful, but with an “error” in her features that renders her impression somehow “better than beauty”; she is self-assured, desirable, yet also vulnerable to the desire that Evie herself seems to feel towards her. Suzanne loves Russell and it is her love for him that binds Evie to him (though Russell does successfully manipulate Evie, it’s pretty clear that Evie would not keep returning to the ranch if it weren’t for her attachment to Suzanne). Cline appears to suggest throughout the novel that the cult of girlhood into which Evie had been inducted over a lifetime of ’60s social conditioning is ultimately what renders the more insidious ranch commune not just a welcoming and promising new environment, but the almost logical culmination of her femininity.

Cline herself certainly seems to see the book in this way. In an interview with the Guardian in May she declared that

The crime aspect is the least important part of the novel. It’s much more a story about the everyday violence of girlhood, the daily brutalities. It was almost a challenge I gave to myself – can I write a book where a literal crime serves as a backdrop to these more psychological crimes?

It is this aspect of the novel that Cline’s male reviewers often seem to miss, an absence that appears with frustrating frequency in the New York Times’ review of the book and elsewhere. The cynical explanation is that the Manson-derived figure of Russell, despite existing on what is really the emotional and psychological outskirts of the novel, by default as the main man in the story takes up much of male reviewers’ interest and the burden of their expectation. If this is the case then I can’t blame them for their frustration with it – of course The Girls seems like it’s slow to getting anywhere if the place that you expect it to be heading towards is a man and a crime that is really not the point of the story.

The point of this review is not to be a die-hard defence of The Girls. These reviewers’ criticisms – most frequently of Cline’s decorous language, her consistently elegiac tone – are fair, even if these things didn’t negatively affect my personal experience reading the novel. The problem was their overwhelming maleness, the fact that, for a book called The Girls, there was a surprising lack of women’s voices in media outlets’ reactions to the book.

This showed perhaps the most plainly in male reviewers’ treatment of the sexual scenes in the novel – all of which are, to a greater or lesser extent, exploitative. Garner in particular writes at the end of his review that Evie “performs sex acts on Russell. She has sex, too, with the grizzled pop star Mitch, whose life will be upended when Russell turns against him.” To be perfectly clear, these are rape scenes: assaults perpetrated by much older men against a fourteen-year-old girl. The trap that Garner seems to fall into here is in thinking that Evie’s unflinching account of her assault, the absence of a claim to victimhood, even the strange pride that she reports after her first encounter with Russell, amount to consent, to “sex”. This is not what these acts are. This is shown even in the way that these scenes are written – there is a notable absence of pornographic detail, particularly in the scene with Russell: we see the before, the after, and flash back briefly later in the novel to the act itself, but it is never directly focalised. Cline’s descriptive attentions signal that enjoyment – both Evie’s and the reader’s – is clearly not the point of these scenes.

Garner’s misunderstanding here speaks to the misjudged focus I felt was common to many of the reviews I read, because surely if someone were paying attention to the way that Cline paints power and gender throughout the novel it would be impossible to read these assaults as “sex”, Evie’s coercion as consent. Because ultimately what The Girls explores, as Cline gestures to in the quote above, is the issue of free will. The background action of the cult and its crime is a tool to bring the novel’s larger examination of this concept into focus – Evie wonders as an older woman whether she could have participated in the murders her friends committed, and suspects that she could. But the novel also zooms in and out from the event, exploring all the big and small ways in which the cult’s structure parallels particularly women and girls’ experiences of coercion and how they coerce each other. Evie’s longing to be loved, her craving to be seen and desired, can be seen as a socialised quality – it’s what makes her vulnerable, but also relatable. Its centrality to her character therefore seems to suggest that what Cline is getting at is that coercion, the blurring of consent, is at the heart of teen girlhood and the initiation into womanhood that it constitutes; Evie’s exploitation becomes a badge of initiation into the cult of girlhood.

With this in mind, it’s possible that the reason I found the book so powerful while these writers merely “appreciated” it is simply that I was indoctrinated into the cult of girlhood, and so were most, if not all of the girls I grew up with. I recognise the rhythms of Evie’s teenage desperations so well that Cline’s writing is not only “accurate” but sometimes almost painful. She has an uncanny knack for describing the minutest shifts in psychosocial relations without sounding paranoid, without taking on the tone of the “conspiracy theorist” attitude she nonetheless recognises these relations to originate from. In fact, much of what the present-day fragments of the novel show and what make them pull their weight as sections is that these relations have hardly changed since the period of the novel’s main action. In the present day, Evie speaks to us from her temporary home in a friend’s vacation house, where she encounters said friend’s teenage son Julian and his girlfriend, Sasha. Their relationship – exploitative, with a disproportionate balance of desperate love on Sasha’s side – serves as a foil to Evie’s own teenage experiences with Suzanne, and despite her efforts to intervene, Evie is forced to accept that Sasha cannot be reached.

For me, clearly, the book’s focus was always powerfully, beautifully girls, their relationships with each other and not their “leader” or leaders, and I think that’s why I never felt that the novel had lost steam or veered off-course. It brought with it an instinctive, even visceral honesty that its male reviewers, through no fault of their own, could not have identified, because it did not come from the buried core of themselves.

In short: I loved this book, and I wish I could have read more, higher-profile reviews from women. I don’t think that only women should have reviewed it, or that every review done by a man was bad – Christian Lorentzen’s review for Vulture for example was really compelling – just that a diversity of views, approaches, and experiences would have done more justice to what is a truly amazing first novel.


Read The Girls if you like beautiful writing, character (rather than plot) -driven narratives, and heady, absorbing period settings that don’t shower you with pop culture references to back themselves up. Avoid it if you prefer a narrative that is moved forward by action and exciting events (this is much more of a contemplative novel), straightforward language that doesn’t mess around so much, and singular narrative structure – the split between the two timelines, as evidenced by other reviews, can be fairly taken as needless and a bit distracting.


Further reading: “See Me”, Emma Cline’s 2014 piece in The Paris Review about adolescence and the Manson girls.


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 that 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.

– Emma Cline, The Girls

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Old Haunt

 

Something about the greyness outside
of the bookshop’s windows on a Thursday afternoon
makes me think of you:
a pressing silver gloom
that clings to the glass
and makes evening approach faster.
Dust gathers thicker;
an unseen clock ticks louder.
On shelves pillowed with dust,
warped and well-loved
spines breathe against each other
as the door opens and closes,
opens and closes,
and the cold bellows of the rain
draw brown leaves, swirling in eddies
onto the brown mat.
We lay like open books once;
lingered for an hour
in this same weakened, weakening
midweek light: a world away,
but one which echoes still
in bookshops on a Thursday
or anywhere, in the dead hours of the afternoon.
I pull a paperback,
fan its pages against my fingers in a whisper
of secrets stored between white sheets
when a clock ticks out of sight –
leave it with its pages clamped shut,
and a trace of regret,
like the umbrella somebody left
shivering in the doorway.


This poem took shape out of a few lines I came across saved on my computer a few nights ago, when I was trying to jolt myself into writing creatively. It wasn’t easy, and it’s certainly not perfect, but I decided that it’s high time I fulfilled the original purpose of this blog, which was to kill the perfectionist impulse and get my writing read by someone other than myself – in other words, to show my work. So, here it is.