Emma Cline’s The Girls was one of those books that appeared on so many “Best of” lists that it was inevitable I would eventually have a go at it. While it was pretty good, I don’t know that I agree it was one of the best books of 2016––though, it certainly wound up capturing some of the themes that seemed to plague 2016.
Evie Boyd was born into wealth and privilege as the granddaughter of an icon of Hollywood’s golden age but by the time she’s an adult, she’s more famous for her long-ago association with a small and notorious cult. Though she didn’t participate the night of their most heinous crimes, she’s spent a lot of time reflecting on how she got as far in as she did and exactly why she wasn’t there on the infamous night. Ultimately so much of it boils down to the girls and more specifically, Suzanne.
I had a really difficult time getting invested in the story being told and I think a lot of it comes from the fact that, while the prose and Evie’s observations can be beautiful and profound, they don’t resonate on a more personal level for me. I couldn’t stand her as a character or first person narrator. It could be the fact that I have little patience for characters like hers because there’s so little in her that I identify with personally. It might stem from the way the story is presented; the 1969 chapters of the story narrated by a reflective, adult Evie plays with the impact of her own adolescence at the time. It’s a perspective that’s most definitely intentional but doesn’t work for me personally. The sections in the “present,” several decades after that fateful summer of 1969, do serve to emphasize just how young and naïve Evie was in 1969, how affected by the world and forces around her. It also becomes clear how little Evie has grown and changed based on her experiences, a fact that strikes a much more depressing note.
What struck me throughout the novel were the ways that privilege and entitlement were examined. There are many ways that privilege and entitlement come into play in our everyday lives that we aren’t necessarily aware of and The Girls captures some powerful observations regarding the inherent privileges that can be found in wealth and being male. Evie never learns with any certainty what the personal backgrounds were for some of the other girls on the Ranch but it’s hinted that most of them originally came from money just as she did. Their thieving and appeals for donations stem not from the desperations of true poverty and struggle but from a twisted narrative of themselves that appeals to their privileged experiences and fantasies. Adult Evie alludes to this in her first person narration, but teen Evie in the moment isn’t mature enough to grasp such concepts (I think that fact would be more effective if the novel was presented from teen Evie’s true perspective rather than at one remove).
While privilege and entitlement regarding wealth are presented with Evie as an insider, her position as female makes the conversation about the privilege and entitlement found in men more overt. It’s incredibly––and rightly––uncomfortable to read through the circumstances of Evie’s burgeoning sexuality (especially taking everyone’s ages into account) but also yields a lot of keen observations regarding all-too-prevalent ideas and attitudes of male entitlement to female bodies. The prose is incredibly poignant at times but—for me—doesn’t quite make up for the narrative dissonance between adult Evie and teenage Evie as characters.