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.

NBCC announces finalists for John Leonard Prize

the-mothers  The Girls  

Here Comes the Sun  Homegoing

The National Book Critics Circle announced on November 30 the finalists for the prestigious John Leonard Prize for best first novel. Four of the six finalists are women, three of whom are POC (Bennett, Dennis-Benn, and Gyasi). Four finalists are American; Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican living in Brooklyn and Max Porter is British. Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved to the U.S. at age two.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (Riverhead)
The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House)
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf)
The Nix by Nathan Hill (Knopf)
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Graywolf)

The finalists were determined by a membership-wide submission process, with the books receiving the most nominations being designated as the finalists. A new procedure for determining the winner was put in place this year. Approximately 50 members who volunteered to read all the finalists in a four-t0-six week period will choose the prize winner.

The winner will be announced in January. The John Leonard Prize will be presented at the NBCC Awards Ceremony at The New School in New York City on March 16, 2017.

Center for Fiction announces finalists for 2016 First Novel Prize

Center for Fiction First Novel Prize 2016 Finalists

The Center for Fiction in New York City has revealed the seven finalists for its prestigious First Novel Prize, narrowed down from the initial 25 nominees. Six of the seven authors are women, including five women of color.

The shortlist (alphabetical by title, matching the photos above from left to right):

Kia Corthron — The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Emma Cline — The Girls

Nicole Dennis-Benn — Here Comes the Sun

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing

Krys Lee — How I Became a North Korean

Kaitlyn Greenidge — We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Garth Greenwell — What Belongs to You 


Read a brief synopsis of each finalist here.

The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000. The winner will be announced at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 6 at The Metropolitan Club.

The Center for Fiction has a good track record in selecting novels that went on to win awards like the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the like. Previous winners include, in chronological order, Marisha Pessl for Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking), Junot Díaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead/Penguin), Hannah Tinti for The Good Thief (The Dial Press), Karl Marlantes for Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts), Bonnie Nadzam for Lamb (Other Press), Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco/HarperCollins), Margaret Wrinkle for Wash (Atlantic Monthly Press), Tiphanie Yanique for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books), and Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer (Grove Press).

See the longlist here.

 

Summer Fiction Preview: A Dozen Books Worth Your Valuable Time

Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer. And that means not only can you now wear white pants, but you’ve finally got some time to do all that reading you’ve been looking forward to. And publishers always “cooperate” by releasing a passel of must-read novels and story collections between May and August. Because there are so many books worth sharing, I’ve split this preview into two parts. Part 1 covers May 31 to June 28. Look for Part 2, covering July 5 to September 13, soon!


May 31

Modern Lovers

Emma Straub — Modern Lovers (Riverhead)

In “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Straub catches up with the former members of a band as they build their family lives in Brooklyn, and suggests that there might be a third answer to that question: that some youthful enthusiasms remain beating quietly beneath the surface, to be revived later, when they’re truly needed.

June

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore — June (Crown)

MBW has mastered the smartly written melodrama, perfect for summer reading. In June, a young woman named Cassie is bereft following the death of her grandmother, the June of the title, who had raised her. But then Cassie learns that she is the heir to the fortune of aging Hollywood star Jack Montgomery. How can that be? Did he know June? When the star’s daughters dispute the will and show up in Cassie’s small Ohio town, they all learn the sinister truth about Jack and June, and face the consequences of a past they could never have imagined.


June 7

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (Knopf)

Some books have pre-publication buzz and some books have Big Buzz. Homegoing is the latter, one of the Big Books of Summer, generated in part by the auction that led to a seven-figure advance for Gyasi’s debut novel. The novel begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, one of whom is married to a British colonizer, the other sold into slavery. Their wildly divergent paths create the real attraction of Homegoing: the novel’s structure, which follows several descendants of the sisters up through the 21st century, exploring the rippling effects of family, history, slavery, and racism. It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut from an author we’ll no doubt be hearing a great deal from.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Anna Noyes — Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press)

Noyes’s collection offers a set of interconnected stories about women of all stripes, struggling to make their lives work in the midst of economic, family, and social challenges in Maine and elsewhere in New England. The characters move in and out of each other’s stories, the way we do in the real world, with effects both salutary and harmful.

Marrow Island

Alexis M. Smith — Marrow Island (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Smith blew me away with her slim but potent debut novel, Glaciers, in 2013. This time she expands her scope beyond the life of one quiet young woman in Portland. Lucie Bowen grew up on Marrow Island in the Puget Sound, until she and her mother were forced to flee to the mainland following an earthquake and oil refinery explosion that killed her father. Now, 20 years later, her best friend from her island youth writes to tell her that the island is inhabitable and is being repopulated by what she calls the “Colony.” When Lucie returns to visit, she soon develops serious misgivings about the colony and its leader, a former nun with an ambitious plan. As with Glaciers, Smith’s writing sparkles even in this dark story.


June 14

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

Ramona Ausubel — Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (Riverhead)

Ausubel made a big impression with her distinctive vision in her debut novel about the Holocaust,  No One is Here Except All of Us, and her sophomore collection of surreal stories, A Guide to Being Born (think Karen Russell). She returns with the story of a privileged family in the mid-1970s who are confronted with a massive financial setback. The parents go their separate ways and their three children hunker down and try to cope with their changed and parentless world.

The Girls

Emma Cline — The Girls (Random House)

Cline’s first novel is also generating a lot of talk. A shy 14-year-old girl becomes friends with an older, charismatic girl and her mysterious friends. They soon suck her into the secret world of a cult living in the nearby hills. The parallels to Charles Manson’s “family” are obvious in this dark coming of age tale set in the Northern California in the late 1960s.

Grace

Natashia Deon — Grace (Counterpoint)

Deon’s debuts is a complex portrait of slavery pre- and post-Emancipation Proclamation. Fifteen-year-old Naomi runs away from her Alabama plantation and ends up in a Georgia brothel, where she falls in love with a white man. The bulk of the story follows their child, Josey, who is separated from her mother and raised by a freed slave in the years following the Civil War; she negotiates a life of violence as a mixed-race slave, then as part of a group of freed women. Rebecca Solnit says, “People will compare this book to Twelve Years a SlaveCold Mountain, and Beloved, and those are fair comparisons for the kind of time and place here, and the evocation of the south 150 years ago. But reading it, I thought of murder ballads, those songs of melancholy and injustice.” Grace is a moving story about the bonds of mother and daughter in the most difficult of circumstances.

Barkskins

Annie Proulx — Barkskins (Scribner)

In a novel that seems like to occupy a parallel universe to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, two young woodcutters (“barkskins”) land in 17th century New France hoping to create lives in the New World. Like the half-sisters in Gyasi’s book, their personalities, skills, and luck are diametrically opposed, with dramatically different results. Proulx depicts the paths of their family trees for the following 300 years with her inimitable style and insight.


June 21

The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver — The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Harper)

Shriver is widely admired for her compelling family dramas We Need to Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. Now she moves into speculative, dystopian fiction, a la Margaret Atwood, to probe the nature of family life when a global currency collapse wipes out the fortune they expected from their 97-year-old patriarch.

Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler — Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Tyler’s modernized take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is the latest in a series of similar books published by Hogarth. Of course, modernizations of Shrew have been with us a long time, such as the musical Kiss Me Kate and the teen-oriented movie 10 Things I Hate About You. So one would think there was nothing left to do with this story of a difficult young woman who refuses to marry, complicating the marriage plans of her younger sister. Here, 29-year-old Kate Battista teaches pre-school and keeps house for her eccentric scientist father and takes care of Bunny, her younger sister. The plot thickens when Dr. Battista needs to find a way to keep his Russian research assistant in the country and looks to Kate for help.


June 28

The Trouble with Lexie

Jessica Anya Blau — The Trouble with Lexie (Harper Perennial)

The irrepressible Blau is back with another breezy yet biting tale of a young woman in various forms of trouble (as in her last book, the darkly comic The Wonder Bread Summer). Lexie James has overcome a troubled upbringing, earning a master’s degree, nabbing a plum job at a prestigious New England prep school, and becoming engaged to a terrific guy. As her wedding date nears, she is plagued by self-doubt. Does she really deserve a life like this? An alumnus of Ruxton Academy becomes the catalyst for Lexie’s journey of self-discovery. In The Trouble with Lexie, Blau offers up an entertaining combination of humorous and poignant moments in a fast-paced, fun read.