Emma Cline’s debut novel is one powerful first shot. Cline’s story is reminiscent of the murders committed by the Manson ‘family’ where Manson encouraged a group of young women to kill a woman, her unborn child and her friends. As books on cults go: this has it all. Sex, drugs, subtle manipulation and at the end of it all…murder. This is not a book for the faint hearted.
Cline’s novel flits back and forth from 1969 to present day. In 1969, our protagonist is a fourteen year old girl – Evie – who for all intents and purposes is like any other teenager. Evie spends her summer engrossed by the teenage magazines which prescribe daily rituals that promise smoother skin and a leaner body and being madly in lust with her best friend’s older brother (we have all been there). These magazines, she later reflects, “taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you-the boys had spent that time becoming themselves“.
Her summer takes an unexpected turn when she falls out with said best friend. Her parents seem wrapped up in their own lives. Long hot summer afternoons stretch out until she meets Suzanne and is introduced to Russell and the ‘gang’ who live in a drug fuelled existence surviving on little sustenance. Yet they are free. They are happy. A world away from what Evie is used to being constantly concerned with how to look and how to act. The reader can emphasise with Evie’s attraction with such a group of people.
That is until something changes. The electricity within the ‘Ranch’ where they all inhabit is altered. This spirals out of control until the gruesome murders. The reasons for this shift seemed slightly far-fetched to me (I won’t spoil the story too much!) and contradictory to Russell’s vision of shedding all identity and materialism.
Cline’s use of Evie retelling the story from present day didn’t add anything in my opinion. This side story where Evie interacts with a young couple is clearly meant to invoke parallel’s between their lives and her life back in 1969 however, I felt that this was underdeveloped and stretched to say the least. In my opinion it would have been far better to have not had this story and allowed the story to progress without the benefit of hindsight.
The author’s real skill in this novel was how she delicately describes Evie’s experience, anxiety and confusion over sex, lust and love. There is an incredible amount of sex within this novel however, whilst it is never seedy it is awkward. The reader will always have at the back of their mind that Evie is barely 14. The only thing that let’s Cline down is her incessant need to have a metaphor for every significant moment in the story. It almost didn’t allow the reader to have an objective view of the moment.
Cline’s ability to invoke the memories of early teenage years and long summer filled days is to be congratulated. I particularly enjoyed the way that Evie – in hindsight – would look back on her life as a teenager and question the role she considered girls to have. Below is my favourite example of this:
“That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you ‘d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.“
Have any of you read it? What did you think?
Recommended for: those who enjoy a slow build of tension in a novel
Favourite quote: “Why couldn’t relationships be reciprocal, both people steadily accruing interest at the same rate.“
Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!