Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

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July 18, 2016
Another super hyped-up book, another disappointment. If this keeps happening, I will never trust publishers ever again!

Beware: this is a very ranty review.

In The Girls, we meet Evie, both in present time and in 1969 as she recounts the story of how, as a 14-year-old dealing with a broken family, broken friendships and a broken heart, she ended up joining a cult led by a man named Russell and almost became involved in the gruesome crime he orchestrated.

I try to never write overly negative reviews because that’s rarely constructive and brings nothing to the conversation, but some books deserve it. This book deserves it, or rather, the whole team behind the making and advertising of this book deserve it. Don’t sell a book as a “thriller/mystery based on the Manson murders” when there is nothing remotely thrilling or mysterious about it, when the focus of your book is teenage girls and their roles and struggles in society, and when the main character is not even present when the crime in question is committed.

Yes, I understand this book is not about the crime or even the cult and its leader, it’s about the girls, but even that premise falls flat when the author’s explanation to why all these girls ended up in a cult is because 1) they weren’t getting enough attention, and 2) this man was highly persuasive and preyed on their insecurity. While this is all very valid and Emma Cline does make some compelling comments about the way women are conditioned to want attention (especially from men) and do anything to get it, the story loses its power when all the author does is tell you these things instead of showing you.

I had a hard time believing the story, especially after reading the source material. Have you read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi? Then don’t bother with The Girls because it basically reads like Evie picked up Helter Skelter and decided to retell the story inserting herself into the narrative, turning it into a typical coming of age story that uses a highly sensationalized case as a background to garner attention. This book fails to give insight on what draws and keeps people involved in cults and the author makes the assumption that the reader is familiar with the Manson case to the point where the development of certain characters (Manson’s fictional counterpart, Russell, for example) is really lacking. At no point did his behavior felt good or strong enough to uphold his reputation. You’re just supposed to assume he’s persuasive and all these other things because other characters say so and, again, because Charles Manson was known to be a very charming and persuasive man.

At its core, this story had a good premise and I enjoyed and sometimes even related to Cline’s insightful commentary on girls and women, the oppression we feel, the way we are taught to be and later get shamed about, and I would have loved to read more about her opinions and point of view on this matter. But the moment she decided to set it against such a dark and twisted background, relied at least 85% on that background to sell the story, then completely dismissed said background as unimportant and not the point? That’s when it all stopped working for me. It all reminds me of clickbait titles on YouTube videos. The cult was clickbait and I’m upset I fell for it.

And don’t even get me started on the writing. It reminds me of how annoyed I was by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Since when did “literary” start meaning pretentious and over the top? I know most people I know have enjoyed her writing style, but for me it was just a headache, very fragmented and try-too-hard. The only thing I can commend her for, writing-wise, is that she’s very good at setting the scene and painting a picture of what the 60s might have been like, but even that fails to be a saving grace when she neglects her characters and their development, making it hard for me to connect with them or care about what they were going through.

Suffice to say, this book fell flat to me. I don’t think I would recommend it, but I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it, especially if they find the premise intriguing. Far be it from me to ever dictate what someone should and shouldn’t read!

(I’d like to thank Random House for providing me with a digital ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review)
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