The Girls was one of the big-ticket books of this summer. Author Emma Cline reportedly received a $2million advance. $2 million?! NOBODY makes that in publishing these days. NOBODY! The average author doesn’t even earn enough to take them above the poverty line! The average U.S. book is currently selling FEWER THAN 250 COPIES A YEAR! But twenty-five year old (25!) Emma Cline’s debut (debut!) sparked a 12 (12!) publishing house bidding war. No wonder it was the most hyped book of the summer – Random House wanted their money’s worth. Lena Dunham quote on the cover, heavy publicity – no stone left unturned. THIS was the book to have on your sun lounger this year.
So, how does a 25-year old produce a first novel that gets the establishment salivating, nay, slobbering? Cline makes the brilliant opening sally of making her novel the untold female story behind the notorious Charles Manson, real-life commune-leader-turned-murderer of 1960s California. Names are changed but there’s no attempt to pretend that this isn’t the source material, though Cline simplifies the chaotic history for fiction. The trouble with telling a story based on a notorious history is that everyone knows the end – but Cline works with this from the off, using it to build a steady sense of dread and with plenty of “If I could have known then what I knew later” type statements.
The story is told through the eyes of Evie, a 14-year old whose dissatisfaction with life is so very typically teenage that it brings a sense of ‘this could have happened to anyone’ to the whole book which is extremely effective. Cline tells the story of the summer that Evie falls into the world of the commune with an extraordinary psychological understanding. This has got to be the best depiction of the mind of a teenage girl I’ve ever read – the enormous significance into every tiny thing, the crazed intensity of personal attachments which seem the most important thing in the world, the absolute readiness to throw away everything you know to be right should the situation arise where it seems appealing. The story revolves around Evie’s growing, desperate obsession with the older Susie, and her resultant willingness to embrace everything the commune has to offer (if that’s the right term), even while it makes her unhappy, even while she knows it’s not right. The mystery that the book drives to is quite how far she will go – will she go to the ultimate end, the scene of death which everyone knows before they even pick up the book?
Cline does a great job at suspending authorial judgement while playing an even-handed game; outsiders are brought in who make us realise the true slovenly, miserable nature of the commune just as we’re made completely able to believe quite why Evie falls so in love with the place, and how its residents are ready to put up with all of its drawbacks. That’s pretty masterly and may just be the most impressive thing in the whole book: the confidence of the authorial presence, how it doesn’t jump in to reassure or signpost drama.
The most noticeable thing in the book, however, is the writing style – it’s what makes it so very unique. Cline writes in this weird, lucid, dreamy, highly descriptive, almost unbearably thought-over way about every tiny, little thing. Everyone has raved about it and you start off bowled over by the quality of each tiny, little description – how she redefines something normal with her acute observation, which never breaks this outsider tone. Applause, applause. But it forces you to notice and admire every phrase, which doesn’t make for natural reading, and I found that after a while it started to grate. Did every little statement need to be so very – written? Could she give it a bit of a rest? But ultimately, I had to acknowledge that this self-conscious overwroughtness is totally suitable for a highly introspective teenage narrator. It’s MADE for it. So I’ll be interested to see in Cline’s subsequent novels if this was a carefully crafted conceit for that reason – or whether it’s just her.
You can see why her winning publishers paid so much for this book. It manages to be intelligent, stylish and highly readable, squeezing in sex, drugs and mass murder while never becoming sordid. Everyone’s going to be looking for What Cline Does Next. And they should be. Dreamy teenage drama with agonisingly freshly observed description may not be your thing – and to be honest it isn’t really mine – but you can’t deny the talent. There’s more to come from Cline, and the world is watching.