By Emma Cline
355 pages. Random House. $27.
Emma Cline’s first novel, “The Girls,” gets off to a quietly thrilling start. The book is set in Northern California over the agitated summer of 1969, and beneath the rhythm of Ms. Cline’s sentences there’s a freight of submerged dread, as if the universe were keyed to the shimmering of the Doors drummer John Densmore’s cymbals.
Ms. Cline’s protagonist is Evie Boyd, a bored and drifting 14-year-old. Evie grew up under the Hollywood sign, if only figuratively. Her grandmother was a well-known actress, plucked from obscurity à la Lana Turner. With her newly divorced and emotionally brittle mother, Evie lives in an echoing and well-appointed house in Petaluma. In the fall, she’ll be shipped, like an item scratched from her mother’s to-do list, to boarding school.
“The Girls” is about what happens when Evie wanders into the orbit of a Charles Manson-like cult. This happens slowly, then with disturbing quickness. One day Evie is in a public park holding a hamburger and, she tells us, “I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”
In this novel’s mesmerizing opening sentences, she continues: “I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter — I knew they were different from everyone else in the park.”
To Evie these girls, who are only a few years older than she is, seem “tragic and separate” — it is as if they’re “royalty in exile.” Evie begins to notice them around town. Their shabby glamour is so appealing that she can overlook the fact that they reek from Dumpster diving and drive a sinister school bus that’s been painted black.
Never get in the black school bus; unless you are a roadie for Insane Clown Posse, this is a life lesson. But one morning, Evie does get in, her bicycle stowed in back. And she does not climb back out when a girl says: “She’s gonna be our offering. We’re gonna sacrifice her.” (Oh, Evie.) Determined to find herself by losing herself, Evie overlooks many, many things.
Scenes of Evie during this unpropitious summer are threaded, occasionally, with scenes of Evie today, in late middle age. All is not well with her. She is an unemployed live-in health aide; she is broke and lonely; she tends to stay in her robe all day. Whatever happened to her out at the cult’s commune has remained with her, like a Gypsy’s curse.
When teenagers meet this Evie, they tend to stare in awe and say things like, “You’re that lady?” She sits them down and explains that it was a long time ago, that she didn’t kill anyone, that she is barely mentioned in the true-crime books. She wonders herself what she did out there in the woods.
Ms. Cline can’t come close to sustaining her novel’s early momentum. After 30 or 40 pages, my enthusiasm for “The Girls” began to wane. After 60 pages, I was scanning for the exit signs. The storytelling becomes vague and inchoate, as if you are reading a poem — a windy poem of the Jorie Grahamvariety — about the novel you’d rather be consuming. This humorless book whispers when you wish it would scream. Its sentences go soft, like noodles in a pot.
It’s not that Ms. Cline doesn’t possess obvious talent. She has an intuitive feel for the interiors of a 14-year-old’s mind, especially the way that Evie, with her fragile sense of self, becomes party to her own abasement at the hands of Russell, the charismatic cult leader. An “expert in female sadness,” Russell knows girls like Evie. They are his “bread and butter.” Ms. Cline also understands — at the start, at any rate — how to build layers of suspense by withholding information.
Her sentences are often strong and lovely, indicative of voice rather than merely of style. “I was wearing a dress that didn’t belong to me in a place I had never been,” Evie says at the commune, a line that speaks volumes about her sense of her new life. She is this novel’s Alice, in a grim sort of Wonderland.
When she’s hitchhiking and a man picks her up, she thinks: “I should have known that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains. Some violent daydream prompting their guilty exhortations to ‘make it home safe.’”
Too often, though, this novel’s sentences fold in on themselves. Ms. Cline attempts to wring too much meaning from each moment.
A bit of obscene graffiti on a bathroom wall isn’t allowed to be merely graffiti, for example. Ms. Cline is compelled to explain what graffiti is. “All the silly, cryptic marks of humans who were resigned to being held in a place, shunted through the perfunctory order of things,” she writes. “Who wanted to make some small protest.” Or maybe they just wanted to crack a stupid joke?
Everything in “The Girls” is pre-elegized. Thesis statements jam this novel’s circuitry, as well. Ms. Cline has a good deal to say about how young women move through the world, except when she tells instead of shows. Then her book simply collapses.
An example: “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”
And what about Evie’s dreams? She 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. A car, filled with girls and knives, will head one night toward Mitch’s house.
Evie will have to decide if, figuratively, she’s on the black school bus or off it. Mentally, you may have already exited out the back.
(New York Times, JUNE 8, 2016)
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