Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline



In my opinion, this is the most overhyped book of the summer. Basically, Ms. Cline uses the backdrop of the Manson murders to frame a coming-of-age story. This is an interesting premise if not potentially fascinating, except you can't have a coming-of-age novel if your character never comes of age. That is only one of the problems with this book.

First of all, the character doesn't move emotionally. She starts out as a confused, clueless teenager who obsesses about the mosquito bites on her legs and ends with her being a forty-something confused, clueless middle-age woman obsessing on her varicose veins. On her legs. Horrible things happen and yet she doesn't move one emotional inch. This seems to be a theme these days in literary fiction. Nothing much happens, but a lot of flowery prose makes you think something has happened. I have read several books like this in the last year, where I feel like Dorothy petitioning the Great Oz, only to find him unmasked by a curious little terrier and then being told to ignore that man behind the curtain pulling the levers. It's a lot of smoke and no fire.

Anyway, I know I will get heat for this, but this book could only have been written by a millennial, and I'll tell you why. There is an obsessive sense of self. This is the generation that defines itself by the selfie, after all. I was thirteen or fourteen years old when the Manson killings occurred, so you'd think I should be able to relate to the protagonist of this book, and yet I'm stymied by her. The book doesn't read like a fourteen year old. It reads like a twenty-seven year old trying to write like a fourteen year old, but with a much older viewpoint that made me question, is this a fourteen-year-old girl? At several point the narrative slips and it begins to sound like as it were told by the older self in flashbacks, which actually works, but then we are yanked back into her "present" again.

There is an appalling lack of fact checking that several commenters have noted. Oi, the credit cards are just one example. If you're going to set a novel in an era that is acknowledged as a monumental cultural shifting of values, then at least get the details right. It's not like there aren't hundreds of thousands of people--like me--who were the age of this protagonist and can spot the errors without even trying. This is just pure sloppiness and takes us out of the story.

Okay, let's get on to the writing. Wow, this is difficult to parse, because there are brilliant sentences that are followed by sentences with descriptors that literally make no sense whatsoever. There are least three of these on every page, and the editor in me was dying to take out a red pen and slash through these modifiers. I opened a page at random, and there is an embarrassment of riches. "The copse of trees that had always vaguely attended by evil." What does this mean? Evil isn't vague. And evil doesn't attend anything. Another page: "Come here," she said, and I sat down on the itchy pile." What does this mean, itchy pile? Is the carpet itchy against her legs? These sentences sound pretty, but ultimately they are hollow because none of these descriptors make sense. Also there is a tick through out that should have been weeded out, and that is the sentence fragment. I use this every now and then, and I appreciate it as a device. But it can be overused and it IS overused in this novel. I'd say at least 20% of the narrative are sentence fragments. And in many cases for no reason (hee!). It's like she'd used up her subject/verb allotment for the day.

Essentially, I felt that the written language in this book needed a firm hand to cultivate this author's truly wonderful facility with language. But pages of lush language do not make a book. I would have liked to see a LOT less manipulation of adjectives and adverbs that are merely window dressing and a lot more attention paid to character development. No one took her by the hand and said, "But what does this mean and why is she doing this?"

And then there is the ending. Why does this ending remind me of Gone Girl, which is another book that lacks a moral center. I suppose had Evie spoken up and exposed these murderous cretins for the evil bastards they were, then this would have actually had her grow up; however, belonging or being "seen" was more important than having a moral core. The fact that Evie did not speak of these atrocities at the hands of her "friends" might be more "literary," but as a reader we are left with a sour taste in our mouths. I didn't understand this stunted allegiance to Suzanne post-murder, or even less so the bizarre envy expressed by the protagonist as Suzanne enjoys her fame as one of the "girls," and a sense that Suzanne robbed Evie of being one of the "girls."

If this girl/woman can't speak for a murdered child, then why should we care about her? I don't feel sorry for her. I hated her by the end of the book. Her silence was beyond odious. It was craven, and no amount of fancy writing can absolve the book of this fact. If you don't care for the protagonist, then I think the writer has lost the reader. You don't have to like a protagonist, but you have to relate to their moral dilemma, and there is NO moral dilemma in this book. There is nothing learned. If the murder of four people doesn't move a protagonist in some direction to jolt her out of herself, then what would? This book reads like an emotional selfie. All image, no heart.

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