This article was published in the New Yorker on June 5, 2017. Read the full article here.
Emma Cline’s first novel, “The Girls” (Random House), is a song of innocence and experience—in ways that she has intended, and perhaps in ways that she has not. It’s a story of corruption and abuse, set in 1969, in which a bored and groundless California teen-ager joins a Manson-like cult, with bloody, Manson-like results. Evie Boyd, an only child whose upper-middle-class parents have recently divorced, wants to be older than her fourteen years, and is drawn to the free-spirited, rebellious young women she sees one day in a Petaluma park. They are looking for food to take back to the ranch where they live. The novel charts Evie’s accelerated sentimental education, as she is inducted into the imprisoning liberties of free love, drugs, and eventual violence, all of it under the sway of the cult’s magus, Russell Hadrick. In another way, though, Cline’s novel is itself a complicated mixture of freshness and worldly sophistication. Finely intelligent, often superbly written, with flashingly brilliant sentences, “The Girls” is also a symptomatic product not of the sixties but of our own age: a nicely paced literary-commercial début whose brilliant style, in the end, seems to restrict its reach and depth.
Twenty-seven years old, Cline is already a talented stylist, apparently fast-tracked by the Muses. I don’t mean this as the critic’s dutiful mustering of plaudits before the grim march of negatives. At her frequent best, Cline sees the world exactly and generously. On every other page, it seems, there is something remarkable—an immaculate phrase, a boldly modifying adverb, a metaphor or simile that makes a sudden, electric connection between its poles. The novel is narrated in the present, by a middle-aged Evie, who recalls the confusions and ardor of her teen-age folly. As she looks back, so she evokes for us with sunlit clarity every detail and texture of her California childhood: “the secret flash of other driveways, other lives,” as seen from a car; “the nothing jump of soda in my throat” (is anyone likely to better that?); the “rotted pucker” of sherry, on first taste; Evie’s mother at a party, her “neck getting blotchy with nerves”; the shy way that she “looked at herself in the oracle of the mirror”; “the sparkly mess of flies I’d swept from the corners.”
Read the full article here.