Review by Jennifer Spiegel
When was the Summer of Love again?
I don’t really know what’s going on with me, but I seem to be hovering in my bookish ways around a certain era. I found myself listening to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. West Coast hippie-splendor. Some Joan Baez, a little Haight-Ashbury. Right now, I’m into Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which is but one step ahead, but on the East Coast. Andy Warhol, the Chelsea Hotel, punk rock.
I took a fictional reprieve with Emma Cline’s The Girls (published this year), which takes place mostly in Northern California in 1969. After the Summer of Love, we had Charles Manson. Irony, yes? What’s going on there? This debut—Cline’s first novel!—imagines the girls in a Manson-like cult, moving towards murder. Though the cult, with its creepy/sexy leader, is fascinating, Cline’s girls are the real focus. An exploration of girlhood, of females on the brink of being women. Vulnerability on the brink.
I’ll put it out there right away: this book is very well-written. The prose is stunning, lyrical, imagistic, lush.
The seduction came early. Cline, no doubt closer to that gauzy, dandelion-fuzzed era of girlhood than I, wrote of girly truths: “They [the girls] were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park . . .” Ah, the way girls straddle a pretty-ugly line! Cline artfully catches her girls on that threshold. She scandalizes our girlhood memories: “We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.” And she reminds us of the music that saturated our girlhoods. Evie, the protagonist, listens to “[s]ongs that overheated my own righteous sadness, my imagined alignment with the tragic nature of the world.”
Girlhood is a time of alienated sensitivity, a time of vulnerability, a time of possibility. Cline’s story focuses on that sensitivity, vulnerability, and possibility; these things undergird tempestuous moments in the life of a woman—when we are haunted by our “righteous sadness.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the book’s strength is also the book’s weakness. The prose can seem, well, mildly overwrought. It’s lovely, well-crafted—so much so that I had to read slowly, carefully. Rather than smooth terrain, imagine walking up a really rocky road: slipping because rocks are loose, stepping carefully every time, watching where you’re going because of unevenness. The whole way. It’s almost tedious, almost not fun. Even if the view is spectacular. Which it is.
That’s Cline’s prose.
Consider this verbiage: “Reclining in the dentist’s chair, hands politely in my lap, while Dr. Lopes worked in my mouth, his gloves slick with my idiot drool.”
When I read, I lingered on idiot drool.
Meander over her description: “I could taste the cocaine drip in her mouth, the brackish sea.”
When I read, I lingered on cocaine drip, the brackish sea.
Ponder the meaning of this: “The three of them were lit like a scene from a movie I was too old to watch.”
When I read, I lingered on the lighting.
Savor her details: “a jar of pennies, green and scuzzy as sunken treasure.”
When I read, I lingered on sunken treasure.
Pause on the imagery: “the fish white of his thighs in his swimming shorts” and, elsewhere, jellyfish “suspended in the water like delicate handkerchiefs.”
When I read, I lingered on fish white, on delicate handkerchiefs.
I suppose my final assessment would be that, yes, Cline’s prose is time-consuming; it takes time to absorb her meanings. But it’s a worthy endeavor.
Besides the richness of language, Cline also captures not just the delicacy of girlhood, but also the subtlety of evil. She writes of the cult leader, “I tried to convince myself, seeing the familiarity of Russell’s face, that the ranch was the same, though when he hugged me, I saw something smeared at his jawline. It was his sideburns. They were not stippled, like hair, but flat. I looked closer. They were drawn on, I saw, with some kind of charcoal or eyeliner. The thought disturbed me; the perverseness, the fragility of the deception.” I love this passage, because it’s weird. And Cline masterfully shows the point at which girlhood converges with the cultic.
Though the prose slowed me down, I’m willing to say that this is one of the best books of the year. I savored her words, eager for her imagery.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave(a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.