I study English Literature at University, so what better way to put my reading skills to the test than starting up a little book club on my blog! I thought it would be perfect over the summer to read and share my thoughts on different novels and novellas and poems and anything literature based. I’m a sucker for story lines based around romance, relationships and finding oneself as well as overly-indulgent poetic language and rosy descriptions of how a plain bedroom has peeling red wallpaper like the skin of an apple, or that the velvet night contained a frenzied atmosphere of longing and hysteria. No but seriously, it’s all about the details for me.
Every few weeks or so, I’ll be picking up a new book and working my way through the pages before sharing my thoughts on it with you. I’ll let you know at the end of each review which novel I’ll be discovering next and, if you like, you can read along with me and share your own thoughts. I’ve always romanticised about book clubs and discussing ideas explored that are caught between title page and blurb. So here we are, part one of my Petite Book Club centres around ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline.
I picked up this collection of words in Waterstones last week and, after a flurry of unfortunate events which involved breaking my phone, I had plenty of time to read. Set in the summer of 1969, Evie Boyd is a fourteen-year-old girl who views her town and the people in it with naïve wonder and innocence. She wishes to grow up and discover boys and sex and love. But when she sees a group of mesmerising girls, she puts everything she has into being accepted by them and their carefree attitude, leading to a disastrous crime scene that is foreshadowed throughout the book. If you like coming-of-age narratives and flowery language, have an interest in hippy cults and Californian landscapes then this is the book for you!
This review will be riddled with spoiler alerts, so if you are at all interested in reading Cline’s writing, go no further and come back to this review when you have gone through the turbulence of Evie’s teenage existence and are hungry to discuss her desperate clutch at independence and adulthood.
Firstly, I want to point out Cline’s deep understanding of human beings and how they view others, trying frantically to understand motives and other’s concerns. Written in first person, we are thrown into Evie’s naïve mind and discover how she views the adult world. Admittedly, she understands more than I did back then about certain things, but that could be the voice of the middle-aged Evie that frames the narrative as she looks back on the summer of 1969 and penetrates her fourteen-year-old self with her wiser musings. You can feel her desperation radiating from the pages, as she grasps at recognition of her existence and need for love from others – anyone will do. So much of this book centres around analysing people’s outward appearance versus the reality of their actual feelings and objectives, and Evie’s attempts at deciphering the real from her imagination. In turn, we as readers, are left to discern whether other people are truly acting in the way Evie thinks they are or whether they have completely different objectives – our very own crime scene to unpick psychological workings.
“Later I would see this: How impersonal our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes”
I admit, at the beginning of this book, I became enraptured by these girls Evie described. Her own desire to be like them made me want to be carefree and dangerous and confident like them too. I wanted to hang out with them. I wanted everything Evie wanted. As the book unfolds and we shift from middle-aged to teenage Evelyn, I quickly realised that whilst comfortable and safe houses with the structure of school and work and friendship groups seemed boring in comparison to the promise of excitement, drugs, sex and a tight-knit community of a love-advocating clan, it was much preferable. You soon realise the dirty environment these girls live in – they are shoe-less, hardly eat anything, sleep on grotty mattresses, are forced to steal for basic necessities and Russell, the head of their cult, coerces them into awful sexual encounters. These encounters are difficult to read, as he manipulates them through soothing words of love and protection and peace which leaves Evie thinking she wanted it. Thus, there is a tension in the book between butter-soft descriptions as we view the world through the fourteen-year-old’s eyes and harsh, vulgar passages when middle-aged Evie cuts in. I like this. It causes you to remember that the narrative is merely a memory, and it’s up to you to moralise its contents.
I can totally relate to the fourteen-year-old – how she pines for human contact and understanding. She has led a sheltered existence, going to school every day, hanging out with her only friend Connie, reading magazines targeted at women on beauty and moulding yourself around men. I think this quote from the book perfectly sums up teenage girl existence:
“All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that had taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves”
I feel like we are brought up growing into our bodies, filling out our hips, stretching our limbs, cultivating our own beauty in a bid to be noticed, to be loved. Evie’s desperation to be discovered with unadulterated adoration by another human leads to a catastrophic climax: death. We learn from her that projecting these responsibilities onto others results in heartache, dissatisfaction and mortality. Instead, perhaps Cline’s message is to continue to be curious, to learn and grow, yet discover that it is truly up to you to accept yourself the way you are and not pine after another’s acceptance.
I also want to talk about the poetic language in this book, because it is peppered with the most beautiful similes – often ones that you wouldn’t expect and that’s what makes the narrative mesmerising. The words to a song ‘Hey Baby’ are explained to be worked around Evie’s mouth ‘like the idle rattle of a lemon drop against the teeth’. How beautiful is that? Or how about when algae sticks to Evie’s legs in her Californian swimming pool ‘like filings to a magnet’. You can totally visualise that tiny bit of detail. It’s descriptions like these that I dream about on the regular and I love it when I discover books which make something beautiful out of the banal.
The end of the book is perhaps somewhat of a let-down. Although maybe this was Cline’s intention. To present that all the dangerous drama wrapped up in Evie’s teenage existence led to disappointment and a sustained fear which she carried into her adult life. I’ll explain that the book escalates into murders undertaken by the girls (bar Evie, she luckily escapes any involvement and trundles back to her comfortable existence before being shipped off to boarding school) including the killing of a mother and her child. The almost court-like snapshots of the crime scene puckered with little gruesome details is like a film – you can visualise the quick succession of violent scenes, the dark figures collecting their victims, the screams, the blood, the dangerous smiles of the girls. All of Evie’s naïve views and carefully crafted long paragraphs comes to this. This sudden climax. Explaining that death is quick and unforgiving. That life is short.
I totally loved exploring Cline’s novel – it’s an easy read and a perfect summer book to pick up and muse over. I read this outside in the sun, on long train journeys and sat, comfortable, under the duvets of my bed. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a book that lingers with you through its disorientating presentation of adolescent desires.
Next up in Petite Book Club, I’ll be picking up ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan. I’ve seen him talk about his work before at a local literature festival and I’ve read ‘Atonement’ at school and loved how his writing could completely manipulate you as a reader…round two here we come. Feel free to read along with me.
Until Next time,