Emma Cline—27-year-old writer from San Francisco, CA—published her debut novel, The Girls, about the Manson family girls, in June, 2016, for a rumored $2 million advance, three book deal, and having sold the film rights. All with Random House.
The massive sale is part of a larger emerging [inner circle] status quo of debut literary novels like Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s 2011 debut, “The Language of Flowers,” Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s “The Nest,” “City on Fire,” by first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg, and Bill Clegg’s “Did You Ever Have A Family,” among others.
Cline had only published some personal essays and a few short stories prior to landing her book deal, one with Tin House and another with the Paris Review. She snagged her MFA from Columbia and became a reader for The New Yorker. Soon she signed on with NYT bestselling author and literary agent, Bill Clegg.
I actually met Cline randomly on a visit to New York back in mid March. My girlfriend and I were staying in Brooklyn before heading off to Berlin. I’d walked into a coffee shop one morning to read Harper’s and sip tea, when I saw the pale, attractive young woman waltz in, sit, and talk to a young man about her book. Being both a writer and book editor, I slid over and handed her my card, telling her I was an editor. She smiled politely, telling me she already had an editor and that her book was forthcoming in June. I asked her name and she complied.
When I looked her up, and read some interviews—discovering the hype and advance—I knew I had to read this woman’s book. The fact that I’ve held a fascination with Manson and his so-called Family Girls for a long time added to the desire. I began the book, seeing her do a live interview in San Francisco in the middle of it, finishing the book last week. Here’s my opinion.
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.
First, a quote from the book. Page 56. This is referencing the 14-year-old female narrator’s insightful revelation when she realizes the truth about boys and their true desires.
“That was our mistake, I think. One of 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 be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”
The novel is chock full of these beautiful, insightful, poignant paragraphs. The language flows wonderfully, sinuous like a snake, leading you to a special, magic place, and forcing you to reread certain sentences again and again, to make sure you really understood the powerful symbolism and metaphor. Depth can be culled from each phrase and languid page. It is obvious, after reading the page-and-a-half long prologue, that the woman can write. That she contains serious, no-messing-around talent. The advance starts to make sense.
I’m not going to say anything bad or negative about Cline’s novel. I don’t want to do that to any author. I don’t think it’s helpful. And in a sense, though I’m almost seven years older than her, I am proud of her and The Girls for becoming #3 on the NYT bestseller list, landing the advance she received, and for getting film rights and a three-book deal with RH as a so-called Millennial, a generation which I am, for better or worse, a part of. This makes me beam. Good work, Emma.
I will say that, though I found the book potent as a whole, there were certain machinations that I didn’t care for personally and from the POV of a writer and book editor I found some aspects distracting. For example. The book flashes back and forth—though it sticks mostly to 1969 and the Manson Family Girls—between Edie Boyd, the 14-year-old narrator, and her older self decades later. Seeing Cline live, she told us that for her, the “point of entry” was the older Edie, being reminded of her time in the Manson family cult, looking back. For me, as a reader, I cared less about the older woman reflecting and was more curious about the teen girl.
But there was another plot point that frustrated me. In the majority of the narrative—seeing the fictive world through the eyes of 14-year-old Evie—we go back and forth, once the story gets moving, between Evie and her home life with her single, repressed, in-denial mother, and Evie’s time at the ranch outside Petaluma with Russell (Charlie Manson) and the girls (Susan Atkins, Pat Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, etc). I loved the ranch and Manson/girls sections. I felt the sections about her mother and home were mostly slow and I wasn’t sure why were were dredging through those sections. I get that her point was probably to contrast the two, show the tearing of consciousness between her two worlds, the middleclass protected one (albeit broken and sick, her mother dating bad men and being caught in her narcissism) and the cult at the ranch, the “free,” lurid landscape she’s discovered, as if a portal to some new dimension. I appreciate that struggle.
But for me, what was enthralling, what was mesmerizing, was the idea of leaving her mother—who we know is long gone emotionally—and entering the ranch. I kept expecting her to go to the ranch and stay, just be there for the rest of the story, enraptured, enshrined. It would be like Homer’s Iliad, the classic descent into hell and return. She’d jump through a portal and come out the other side changed. But instead she keeps going back home, describing what it was like to “be” home, after being at the ranch, with crazy Charlie and the bleating sheep girls. The problem for me was that by the time I really cared about Evie and wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen next, I didn’t want to see her go home; I didn’t care about home. Home was the ranch; home was her shocking love for Suzanne.
Structurally speaking I desired more ranch, more muscular experience from the POV of Evie Boyd in relation to the Family, and less mom. She even visits her father towards the end of the book, staying with him and his new girlfriend in Palo Alto. Again, the issue for me was that I’d already long ago given up on her parents. We know those parents. We know those homes. We know this landscape already; it’s engraved in our collective consciousness, our emotional awareness. For me, I felt the yearning for more rounded out focus on the ranch, the girls, and on Evie’s experience and struggle specifically in that realm. Every time I read the mother/father pages it felt sluggish and irrelevant to me. The ranch was what held my interest. These interim pages didn’t make me want to keep reading to find out what would happen next at the ranch, but rather had the effect of nearly making my skip these pages (though I didn’t) to go to the more engaging, exciting, driving areas of interest. The mother/father sections had too much back story, too much summary and explanation , too much “telling.”
And yet, the book is still stunning. I finished it with a chill down my spine and a deeper awareness in my heart of the pain, the loss, the grief of being a teenage girl in America. I wasn’t sure if I bought the 1960s feeling she tried to impose—neither she nor I were born in those days—but I’m not sure that was her intention anyway. The book wins in the end because it is gorgeously written by a new, serious, captivating writer with the clear talent Random House must have seen in the beginning. I think she writes the strongest when she describes and shows young female characters struggling to find some piece of meaning in the world that surrounds them, some understanding of the sickness, the complex humanity that confuses; ultimately when she writes from the heart about how young people try to face the challenge of growing up. And since she does this, or at least tries her best to, on just about every sentence, the whole book, even the sections I found to be slow and cut-worthy, ends up being a product of art in the deepest sense of the word. Cline has created art. To do that?
A worthy endeavor.
Give the book a read. I’m always curious to hear from other readers, authors, editors, agents, etc.
You said it. Let’s edit.
***Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance novel editor. His fiction has been published in the following: Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] blog; and the San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.