I remember the first time I noticed men looking at me. I was eleven, maybe twelve. I was with my mother in the car—on the way home from church, of all things—and the thrill of occupying the front seat still buzzed somewhere at the bottom of my throat. When we were parked a red light, heads bobbing to some song on the radio, my mother muffled a laugh and told me the man parked next to us was looking at me. I didn’t believe her, but when I glanced to my right I made brief eye contact with a man who I would have figured to be closer to my mother’s age than my own. He snapped his eyes back to the road, grinning.
“He was looking at you, not me,” I corrected, when the light turned green and we drove away. My mom just shook her head and smiled. “He was checking you out,” she assured me. “You’re a pretty girl.”
I felt sick and exhilarated, small and large all at once. I thought I was marked, somehow, by the gaze of a stranger—like I was able to call myself something new for having been seen.
Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls deals richly in the subject of being seen, of the constant awareness of their own visibility that young women so often feel but so seldom verbalize. The novel’s protagonist Evie Boyd narrates a heady, tumultuous recollection of a summer in her youth, which she spent in the company of a group of people that most now refer to as a cult. The “summer of ‘69” cliché finds itself refreshed in a coming-of-age meditation: as alcohol leads to drugs leads to dark and unexpected violence, Cline’s narrative focus—and Evie’s gaze—remains fixated on the only constant, on the girls.
The story begins in present day, Evie’s internal monologue referring obliquely to the details of some hideous crime from her past—“the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach”—so that the romance of the initial flashbacks in a golden California summer are tainted by the promise of a dark turn. Evie is fourteen, lolling in a somewhat isolated ranch-home life charmed by the legacy of a movie-star grandmother. She is acutely self-conscious, a trait that the narration leans on heavily.
Present-day Evie, looking back at her teenage self, writes about her obsession with image and presentation until it becomes its own character, driving the story forward with sinister and quiet power. “I waited to be told what was good about me,” she writes of the hours spent poring over magazines and pondering back-to-school beauty regimes. “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”
But it is not just Evie’s lack of confidence that leads her to the commune where the slick and manipulative Russell leads his dirty pack of youths. In strenuous concert with her insecurity is Evie’s preoccupation with the beautiful and aloof Suzanne, a nineteen-year-old runaway. Inconstant, vindictive, beautiful, Suzanne grabs hold of Evie through an ineffable magic, an attraction that Evie can’t fully understand or admit.
Evie thrills at the most mundane of Suzanne’s actions, attunes obsessively to her every move. When Evie first has a sexual encounter with Russell, a clinical and desensitized fifteen minutes in a filthy trailer, her thoughts are for the whole time elsewhere, landing on “whether Suzanne was looking for me or not.” When Evie settles into a part-time routine on the compound, she takes to sleeping with Suzanne on the nights when she stays. “Her mattress wasn’t comfortable, gritty with sand, but I didn’t mind. Sometime she reached over blindly from sleep to sling her arm around me, a warmth coming off her body like baked bread. I would lie awake, painfully alert to Suzanne’s nearness. She turned in the night so she kicked off the sheet, exposing her bare breasts.”
The way Suzanne electrifies Evie makes the men around whom they both satellite seem drab by comparison, lifeless and slack. Russell doesn’t live up to the fervent, hushed ways the girls on the compound talk about him. But Evie never meditates explicitly on his shortcomings, never verbalizes an admission of disenchantment. And while her sexuality is obvious to the reader—she owns to masturbating over Playboy photos from a young age—she doesn’t seem to piece that reality together, either. Even Evie the narrator, looking back on her past with an otherwise unforgiving clarity, does not overtly acknowledge that slice of identity: the reader must slog through a series of telling impressions, not quite disparate enough to render Evie’s obliviousness believable.
While Cline comfortably wields a slow insidious build to murder and damning revelations of girlhood in both hands, it is often simply the prose itself that shines. Throughout, her words are intoxicating, in places more poetry than prose. The prologue has perhaps some of the most memorable language I have read since Lolita. “I looked up because of the laughter,” it begins, “and kept looking because of the girls… The sun spiked through the trees, like always—the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets—but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.”
This prologue inundates not only with the thick, sometimes over-honeyed style the reader can expect from the rest of the novel, but also with the clarity of a distinct female gaze that Evie comes eventually to master. She may fuss with the task of being looked at; she may, at only fourteen, possess a weary understanding of her role as object in a world of male observers—but what Evie ultimately gains is her own way of looking, a gaze that either circumvents or obliterates (depending on the drug du jour) the male-dominated lens she has been raised to look into.
Evie’s summer does not wrap up neatly, does not inspire or comfort. She estranges herself from friends and family; men twice her age impose brutally on her body; the tiniest of circumstantial shifts separates her from the murder of the decade. But she does have her new way of looking—not looking, this time, but really seeing, noticing, reveling. “We had been with the men,” she muses of Suzanne and herself, “we had let them do what they wanted. But they would never know the parts of ourselves that we hid from them—they would never sense the lack or even know there was something more they should be looking for.”
After having found her own way of seeing, of sharing this gaze with the other girls, the world outside the commune starts to seem hollow—to Evie and to us. We leave Emma Cline’s pages aware of all the surfaces we perform, the deductions we allow from our multitudes, as though we are too tired to prove we are anything more.