Reading & Writing

Hanging Out with The Girls

the-girls-emma-cline-660x440When this week began, I knew very little about Charles Manson and the “Manson Family.” I’d seen his picture. I’d heard references to Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten without really knowing who they were. I knew it wasn’t pretty, but I’d never gone in search of the details.

Then I picked up The Girls by Emma Cline. A popular book, often featured on end caps, with an appealing cover and a vaguely historical basis. An impulse purchase, if I must admit it, on a shopping trip to Target. It sat on my shelf for about six months before I cracked the cover, then I read the whole thing in two days.

It was a strange experience, reading The Girls, though that’s not necessarily because of the book itself. You see, my days of sitting alone and devouring a book are pretty much over. I read books in snippets, partial chapters–before bed, during nap times, when my kids are otherwise occupied. Mostly, if they’re awake, I don’t even try, but the other day I found myself vegging out while the girl was asleep and the boy played quietly with his trucks and I thought, I need some stimulation. So I grabbed a book. I spent the rest of that afternoon and much of the next transitioning between worlds–from the dusty ranch to the changing table to an explicit sex scene to stacking blocks. After my husband got home on day one, I got curious and Googled the heck out of Manson.

The Girls is fiction. It’s based on the Manson family, but not actually about them. Names are changed, but so are events–from what I read online, I gathered that the book creates a simpler reality, with more obvious motivations and a naive narrator whose version of events could never encompass the complexity of what happened in August 1969 because that narrator (Evie) is only fourteen, looking for a little rebellion, and her interest in the group is not based on an attraction to their leader but to one of the girls. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and are behaving, to her mind, bizarrely. She has a best friend but their relationship is tenuous and when it falls apart, Evie falls in quite easily with the group of girls she’s seen dumpster-diving around town.

Upon finishing this novel, I was almost jealous that I hadn’t written it. It’s a really solid book with interesting subject matter with a baked-in climax, and the way she structures it–there’s some scaffolding in which an aging Evie encounters a friend’s young son and his girlfriend and is reminded of her youth–gives the book constant tension, because even if you’ve never heard of Charles Manson, she tells you right up front that Evie was in a cult that committed some gruesome murders, though Evie herself was not involved. So the whole time, you’re looking for the motivations and the string of coincidences necessary for her to have been involved without ever being publicly linked. And even if you’re a little disappointed in the way things turn out (I’ll admit that I was, though the simplicity of Cline’s story rings true), you still get a jolt as if you’ve been nearly hit by a car, and you’ve read three hundred pages of real, raw, honest girlhood.

But back to my jealousy. I wished I’d written the thing until I realized: Emma Cline has a hard job ahead of her. This is her first novel, and it was a hit. While she did a huge amount of work fleshing it out, her story’s skeleton was already there, giving her some structure and strictures that helped her create something memorable. So maybe I’m not so jealous, after all, because if her next book doesn’t have an established backbone–if she has to make it all up–will she be up to it? I can see myself in that situation, having a panic attack. Then again, after such a successful first book, I’d imagine the second novel is always daunting. Especially now that feedback doesn’t come exclusively from respected reviewers, but from any opinionated yahoo on the internet.


6 thoughts on “Hanging Out with The Girls”

  1. I also read The Girls and loved it. I guess I should say I listened to it while driving in Oregon by myself. It was captivating and intriguing and I wished I’d written it too. I loved Evie and her innocence and naivety. After I read it I was searching for somebody to talk to about it, but couldn’t find anybody. Darn we didn’t read it at the same time because now I’ve moved on to other things and can’t remember when I was so compelled. What else are you reading? I’m reading the 12 Tribes of Hattie now and really getting into it.


    1. I’m also chipping away at Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I’ll have to look up the 12 Tribes of Hattie. Haven’t heard of that one.


  2. I read about half of Fates and Furies and had to give up. I had so many issues with it, I was mad every time I read it. My husband loved it but not me. I like Emma Cline’s style of writing much better than Lauren Groff’s.


    1. Yeah, Lauren Groff can be a rough read. I’ve read other stuff of hers and I remember vaguely liking it but I can’t remember what it was, which I don’t think bodes that well. But the thing is, with her, it’s more about the words than what they’re saying. What they’re saying can be beautiful and interesting–I’m less than halfway, so I’m focusing on Lotto/Lancelot, who has only recently become a playwright–but it’s much more character driven than plot driven. So far I’d call Fates and Furies an extended character study more than I’d call it a novel. Though there are a lot more pages ahead of me. And if you think about it, while a lot of what she’s doing feels highly experimental and there’s sometimes a lot of criticism for these heavily character motivated works, it’s basically Dickensian. Dickens on psychedelics, maybe. Because the long, whole-life story as a prelude to the actual plot is straight out of David Copperfield. Not that that’s the most engaging read of all time, in itself, and there’s been a lot of literary history between Dickens and Groff. But I like slow things. Though there are times when I see what she’s doing with her prose and I think, Come on–pretentious much? But the next day, in a different mood, I’ll see her do the same thing and think, Ten points! Fancy footwork! because I admire her prose the way one might admire the intricacies of something like ballroom dancing, where most people are looking at the whole package of the couple moving across the floor, but I’m looking for the points where their shoes hit the ground and the spacing they keep and that imperceptible flip of her dress so it shimmers under the lights.

      Anyhow–I’m thinking of extending this “Fiction Friday” thing in my blog so I don’t dissolve into mommy blogging and to get myself to read more. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to ramble about Fates and Furies next Friday. But yeah, even without finishing it, I can see how it would alienate most readers. It shocked me that it’s a bestseller–but so was Cloud Atlas, and that one almost actively encourages you to put it down in the first hundred pages. I do think it’s encouraging to see books like these do well, though–to know that the market isn’t only interested in the Harry Potters and the Gone Girls.


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