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Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

07/12/2017

the girls

After I have finished reading a book, I like to go to Goodreads and see if random strangers liked or disliked the book as much as I did. I never post reviews or comments, because I can’t remember my password, but I do enjoy reading other peoples’ opinions of our shared read. I guess I’m a Goodreads voyeur. Of The Girls by Emma Cline, a male reviewer said, “I don’t know if a man can love this book.” I am inclined to agree. The Girls is  mostly a snapshot of a girlhood summer, age 14, location, California. The book is full of teenage insecurity, confusion, fear and intrigue about boys and men, bad decisions, and loss of innocence. The male characters are also not very likeable, which I too would find annoying if I was a guy.

I knew the book was a fictionalized version of the Manson girls, a topic I am interested in strictly for the familial link. We, my brothers and the maternal side of my family, are related to one of the Manson girls. Admitting this fact brings me back to the memory of my mother’s tight grip on my bicep, hissing in my ear through clenched teeth, “Don’t TELL people.” Like I was the one who killed someone.

So I was drawn to the book at first because I wanted a little more insight into the story of my second cousin, the Manson girl, and her cohorts. I wanted this question answered: What causes a seemingly normal, non-violent teenage girl, raised in the 50s and 60s like my mother was, to commit such heinous acts of murder? The answer is complicated and elusive. I still don’t think I know. What I do know is that The Girls took me back to what it felt like to be a 14-year old girl in the world.

I was surprised by how relatable this story is. In many ways, it was like I was reading the story of my own teenage self (minus cults and crime). This fear/nervousness/confusion with boys and men was my experience too. Penises showed up in my life in wrong and unexpected ways: falling out of a grown man’s shorts as he leapt to catch a football; bulging in the pants of boys I used to play tag with; being grabbed by its owner, the middle school boy who thought cupping his crotch was a big turn on for girls; and in books and magazines and all over the girl talk during the slumber parties of my youth. My own mom was pushing me hard to care about boys and sex, and even though I strongly suspected I wanted nothing to do with any part of male anatomy, the thought that I might one day HAVE to was scary and icky. The obvious difference between me and Evie Boyd, the main character in The Girls, was she actually wanted attention from the boys. It drove her and guided her. Me, not so much.

Evie is not extremely  likeable, but she is relatable. I saw my teenage self in Evie, and I didn’t like that connection to this insecure and pliable character. During the ages of 14-17, I too was looking for an idol, and was willing to do anything for that person. For me, it was easy stuff. Staying out past curfew when nobody was home to care anyway. Drinking vodka and orange Crush at school and feeling like a badass, daring someone to catch me.  And, like Evie,  Simultaneously loving and hating my mom. Hating the small details of her existence, including random things, like her curled up knee-high nylons resting inside her sensible shoes, the wafting scent of her Oil of Olay and Chanel #5 in the house, even when she wasn’t home, her nervous habit of clicking her nails on the coffee table. I hated myself for needing her, and hated her for dismissing me for what I perceived was her dislike of all the things I was: athlete, tomboy, book nerd, fashion victim, non-wearer of make-up, girl oblivious to hair styles, hair products, and, most importantly, dating or talking about boys. I suppose all parents have a lost dream for their own children.

Cline explores the invisibility of girls, how we rated and judged our friends, and how we were defined by who we hung with, the music we liked, the clothes we wore, our knowledge (or lack thereof) of makeup and guy catching.  How could we really know who we were, when everything we were supposed to care about was not us, but the Seventeen and Young Miss magazine version of what we should strive to be? Maybe this figuring yourself out can’t happen in the teen years.

“The Ranch” in the book reminded me of another time in my life, ages 19 25 ish. I was reading a lot of Herman Hesse and Tom Robbins, listening to the Grateful Dead, and working on minimalism (because I was poor). My plan was to own only enough stuff to live out of my truck if I had to and move anywhere I wanted to in one trip. I wanted the simple life. I almost had myself convinced, especially after reading On the Road, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Catcher in the Rye, that I was not going to play a part in my parents and society’s dream for me: sensible college major, career, white-picket fence, husband, children, PTA, meal planning, retirement, death. I was going to write, read, camp, learn to juggle, wear Levi’s cut-offs and thrift store T-shirts, go to festivals and outdoor concerts, and drink Americanos, journaling and judging the boujee people while sitting on patios of coffee shops to the subtle soundtrack of Blues Traveler and Sheryl Crow.

And then, I stopped. Because I realized you can have whatever you want, and you don’t have to align yourself to someone else’s ideal life. You get to make your own, whatever that looks like. With a kid, a wife, the picket fence and degree, juggling and journaling, minimalism and responsible bill paying, all.

Life evolves, and so do we. We age and we have the ability to reminisce and reflect. Cline juxtaposes chapters with the middle-aged Evie, a somewhat more confident version of her former self. The older Evie made me reflective about my life so far. Have I lived the life my parents created and hated? Am I like my mother, minus the nylons and clicking fingernails? The novel made me question my life, my journey so far. I questioned, I remembered, and it made me want to write more about my own story. I love it when a writer can do that for me.

 

I’ve been reading a lot lately, as summer school is over and I have a 3-week gap before school starts. I promised myself I wouldn’t think about school preparation until Week 3 of this break.

Recent reads that were awesome:

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Orphan #8 by Kim Van Alkemade

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

George by Alex Gino

Current Reads:

Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. I am really enjoying this one. My first Archer novel, and now I want to read more. I also started Armada by Ernest Cline. I was motivated to try another one of Cline’s books because I loved Ready Player One so much.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Shayne permalink
    07/13/2017 2:36 pm

    I NEVER read and Ready Player One is pretty good. I see why you wanted another Cline read.

  2. Stephanie Bockman permalink
    07/13/2017 7:41 pm

    So many books, so little time. I’m back into the Vietnam war again. Love, hate relationship for knowledge about it. Probably have read over 100 books, fiction and non-fiction, on it….

    • 07/13/2017 9:34 pm

      I’ll have to get recs from you. I’m getting more in to historical fiction these days

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