THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“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.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our 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 the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

CEMENTVILLE examines the impact of a faraway war on a small Kentucky town

Cementville

Cementville

By Paulette Livers

Counterpoint Press: March 17, 2015 (paperback)

304 pages, $15.95

One of my recent literary preoccupations has been literature by women about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve read and reviewed several novels and story collections exploring the lives of soldiers, those at home, and the challenges of homecoming (see the list here) from the female point of view.

Paulette Livers’s gritty novel Cementville, which takes place at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, is a reminder that war is a universal experience, with the same issues recurring across conflicts and generations. Through the many characters and conflicts in Cementville, Livers probes the effect of loss and grief on families and an entire town, how soldiers returning with PTSD adjust to being home, the attempts of soldiers and their loved ones to rebuild or redirect shattered lives, and the varying views about war and its aftermath within a community.

This novel in the form of interconnected stories begins in May 1969, when seven of the town’s young men return from Vietnam in coffins, all killed in one firefight at Phu Bai. They had joined the Kentucky National Guard hoping to avoid combat but were sent into harm’s way. One soldier returns alive. Harlan O’Brien, the local high school’s former star quarterback, has spent three years in a POW camp and returns without a leg and suffering from PTSD.

The residents of  Cementville are forced to cope with an event for which they are utterly unprepared: multiple funerals and returning veterans with PTSD. In addition to Harlan O’Brien, we meet several other characters who show us the various sides of life in Cementville.

Maureen is a 13-year-old girl who dreams of escaping her claustrophobic hometown and who serves as an innocent and non-judgmental observer. Wanda, the local librarian who spends all her non-working hours hiding from people at home, offers another perspective on people and events. Evelyn Slidell, the matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family (and, in a sense, of Cementville itself), provides a view into the town’s checkered history.

The seedy side of Cementville is revealed through the various misdeeds of the Ferguson clan, infamous for their violence, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity. We are also introduced to Giang Smith, a Vietnamese war bride struggling to assimilate to life in America, who finds that the ghosts of Vietnam have followed her to this quiet town in Kentucky.

The novel’s strength lies in its multi-faceted examination of a diverse group of people trying to adapt to a world that seems to have come unmoored. Change is everywhere: war, civil rights, feminism, scientific progress (the moon landing of July 1969), youth culture (Woodstock happened in August 1969), and a shifting economy (the cement factory that gives the town its name has been struggling through a manpower shortage with so many of the town’s young men away at war). Livers focuses on some characters more than others, but we get snapshots of many lives in this one town which, if not quite a microcosm of America in 1969, at least serves as a useful case study.

The downside of using such a wide cast of characters is that the novel ends up slightly overloaded. Some characters and subplots are more compelling than others. The omission of one or two subplots would have resulted in a more streamlined, focused, and potent narrative. Because it’s a novel-in-stories, it is not quite as unified and coherent as it could have been if it had been written in a more traditional manner. And the narrative failed to develop the momentum I expected from the novel’s synopsis and early sections; the frequent movement among several narrators and characters creates a somewhat fragmented reading experience that occasionally made it feel as though I was being pulled in a few too many directions.

It’s always a particular challenge to write a “political” novel that manages to keep the politics underneath the storyline so it doesn’t distract from the characters and plot. [Livers discusses the writing of Cementville in this essay, originally posted here on August 24, 2014.] In that regard, Cementville is mostly a success; if anything, the crowded plot, with some borderline Southern Gothic elements, threatens to diminish her political messages.

Still, despite these  quibbles, I found Cementville an affecting read — and an important one. Livers’s writing can be both pointed and lyrical, and she evokes a powerful sense of place. The community of Cementville comes to life in these pages. If you are interested in the impact a faraway war can have on one community, you should add Cementville to your reading list.