The Girls, by Emma Cline

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Four stars, read in December 2016.

This book has a good plot, but the amazing thing was how much it really is about girls. Emma Cline remembers so well, so specifically, the embarrassing agony of being a teenage girl. Oh, the scene where Evie pushes over Henry’s motorcycle; I felt that scene. I’ve been in that scene before. I’ve never seen or read another girl who is so close to how I was in my early teens, and I’m so sad for that girl every time I remember her.

“Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”

So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.

Do you remember how important boys seemed back then, how pretty much all-consuming? And when you look back on them with your adult eyes, you see how little we pined after, how little we had to work with. We made so much out of it.

I understood that this was part of some plan she had hatched to get Henry’s attention. To leave, then return. She had probably read about it in a magazine.

That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.

For this, I specifically blame magazines, Hollywood, and Candace Bushnell.

And this is why Evie joined the cult. It’s the same thing, really, the way girls are taught to think about boys and the way people get caught up in religion. The obsession with a single figure, the way you build your entire brain around that person. The cult Evie joins is the extreme, scary version people always imagine when they think of cults, but to me, the only real difference is scale. If a religion is popular enough, then we decide it’s legitimate, even though all the same things are happening.

“I envied Victor’s certainty, the idiot syntax of the righteous. This belief—that the world had a visible order, and all we had to do was look for the symbols—as if evil were a code that could be cracked.” I loved this just for that phrase, the idiot syntax of the righteous. It’s such a perfect description of the way people create whole worldviews around whatever belief they find important, like an entire language of their own.

Tamar was sweet and kind, but the world she moved around in seemed like a television set: limited and straightforward and mundane, with the notations and structures of normality. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There wasn’t a frightening gap between the life she was living and the way she thought about that life, a dark ravine I often sensed and Suzanne, and maybe in my own self as well. Neither of us could fully participate in our days . . . I mean that we didn’t quite believe it was enough, what we were offered, and Tamar seemed to accept the world happily, as an endpoint. Her planning wasn’t actually about making anything different—she was just rearranging the same known quantities, puzzling out a new order like life was an extended seating chart.

I love that image, and I can relate with both halves of it. I know what I’ve been offered is  not enough, and I can’t accept it the way it is. But I’m also trapped for the time being, and while I wait for the ability to add new elements that will actually make things different, this is all I can do—I rearrange the same known quantities over and over and over in an attempt to exert even the smallest amount of control over my life.

I don’t like true crime stories, and while this is fictional, it’s similar enough that I don’t think I would have picked it up on my own. If you do like true crime, it will probably be right up your alley.

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