ARC Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline
Released: 14th June 2016
Published by: Random House
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Source: Netgalley
Pages: 368
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

 Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon.

Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

 Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction—and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Emma Cline has such a way with words, and there's no denying that this is a book which will draw you into its depths before jolting you back to reality once you reach its end. Melodically written yet with a distinctly sinister undercurrent, this is a story which builds subtly towards a violent crescendo. Set int the summer of 1969, the then fourteen year old protagonist Evie Boyd is inexorably drawn towards a group of older girls, tantalised by their own dreamlike world - which is more dangerous than she could have ever imagined; yet intoxicating nonetheless.

Her makeup looked terrible, but it was more of a symbol, I suppose. I could see she was nervous with my eyes on her. I understood the worry. When I was that age, I was uncertain of how to move, whether I was walking too fast, whether others could see the discomfort and stiffness in me.

As he talked, I hugged myself with my arms. It all started making sense to me, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My twitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.

If there's one distinct feature of this novel, it's the winding prose which is hypnotic in itself. Each page is saturated with imagery and a deft turn of phrase that encapsulates what it feels like to be a teenage girl coming of age. That pressing insecurity, the dichotomy between autonomy and autocracy, and a yearning for acceptance are all experienced by Evie, until she is lured by Suzanne and her clique into Russel's twisted enclave. I've read that this story is loosely based on what actually happened surrounding Charles Manson, which makes it even more disturbing. It's clear in the first pages where Evie is looking back on her younger years just how terribly wrong the whole situation was - though the question us readers are dying to know is what sequence of events led to such a terrible fate? This question is answered by the conclusion, and the path there is one which is deceptively lulling, with just the right amount of dissonance to maintain suspense.

Sidenote- reading this book reminded me a lot of Lana del Rey's song 'Freak' - if you watch the music video you'll see what I mean.

Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgments, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had—the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern—had become inaudible. If those instincts had ever been detectable at all.

Though the abundance of purple prose may not appeal to everyone, it's the actual plausibility of the story and shock factor which make it so indelible. The 1960's was a time when the disillusioned youth turned towards radical ideas, perhaps a doomed relationship just for the sake of it, or finding a group of people just like them to share in the general melancholia of adolescence. Emma Cline's insights such as these in The Girls are scathing, bringing to light the moral dilemmas and hedonism which characterised the era and influenced teens within it. It is the young women like Suzanne and  Evie which were the most vulnerable to the charms of a man with big ideas, and what appeared as a utopia in the midst of an increasingly unsettled age.

Even possessing that small amount of money tindered an obsessive need in me, a desire to see how much I was worth. The equation excited me. You could be pretty, you could be wanted, and that could make you valuable. I appreciated the tidy commerce. And maybe it was something I already perceived in relationships with men—that creep of discomfort, of being tricked. At least this way the arrangement was put toward some use.

Cline has also shown her skill in developing each of her characters with a unique voice and charisma. While 'the girls' flounder at the ranch, aching for attention and simply wanting to be seen and desired, Russel is something else entirely. He's a character who is both aberrant and coldly calculating - possessing a power over his followers that is omnipotent. It was definitely interesting to see how the group dealt with people from the outside of their inner circle, and how malicious decisions eventually dictated their downfall.

The man held up his hands and boomed out a greeting: the group surged and twitched like a Greek chorus. At moments like that, I could believe Russell was already famous. He seemed to swim through a denser atmosphere than the rest of us. He walked among the group, giving benedictions: a hand on a shoulder, a word whispered in an ear. The party was still going, but everyone was now aimed at him, their faces turned expectantly, as if following the arc of the sun.

My one qualm with The Girls was the ending - it just seemed a bit too rushed and tidy. Though the last chapter is undeniably perturbing, I think that Evie may have gotten away from the drama too easily, with too few external repercussions. However, I think this can be forgiven since the rest of the story is so gripping.


The Girls is a story where a loss of innocence is punctuated by one girl's experience in a microcosmic world of misplaced trust and blind faith. Emma Cline has proved herself to be a talented young writer with a bright future, if this brooding novel is anything to go by.


  1. I haven't quite heard of this before but it definitely sounds harrowing and like it was developed really well. Lovely review Genie!

    1. Thanks Jeann - it really was quite a confronting novel at times, but really well written overall.


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