Emma Cline has only published one novel, but it’s a dandy. The Girls, which first hit shelves in 2016, in the late nineteen-sixties. It centers on a young teenager named Evie, who falls in with a group of slightly older girls who are part of a makeshift community that resembles a commune or a cult, depending on the level of skepticism brought to observation process. That the group is clearly modeled on the Manson family is a tip as to which way Cline views it.
The book is marked by vivid, creative language that occasionally tornadoes up Franzen-esque descriptive curlicues, but Cline never seems to be showing off in the common manner of first-time novelists with something to prove. Instead, the story is most notably for how firmly its grounded in an astute examination of Evie’s psychology, beginning with the depths of her need that makes the group appealing in the first place, and including the trepidation and quiet clamoring for acceptance that keeps drawing in deeper to toxic and dangerous places. Cline shows how fierce misgivings and acquiescent participation can exist in the same moment.
Cline’s depiction of a young woman trapped in ugly circumstances by personal manipulation helped make The Girls one of the buzziest novels of 2016. One year later, it’s even more poignant, as the delayed justice of women openly naming the men who’ve harassed and oppressed them proceeds unabated. And it’s picked up an added resonance as Cline has found herself the target of a plagiarism suit mounted by a bitter ex-boyfriend making ludicrous claims such as the shared presence of a body brush in Cline’s novel and one of his earlier short stories is damning proof of cold-hearted theft.
Naturally, the legal to and fro includes vicious attacks attesting to Cline supposedly using feminine wiles to entrap the weak, susceptible male, stealing away his talent in the process. The argument cynically traffics in the misogynistic notions that a young woman (Cline is still in her twenties) couldn’t possibly have written so successful a work, while adding a heaping side of succubus characterization. The patriarchal disdain for women couldn’t be more clear in the legal filing, which sputters its indignation that “Cline was not the innocent and inexperienced naïf she portrayed herself to be, and had instead for many years maintained numerous ‘relations’ with older men and others, from whom she extracted gifts and money.” When the relationship in question began, Cline was not yet of legal drinking age and the male who would become her accuser was thirty-three, yet she is depicted as the cunning, worldly manipulator.
The charges hurled at Cline would be laughable if they weren’t so sadly typical. In my estimation, the contrived attempt at ginning up scandal only makes Cline’s words more important, more resonant, more true. And I have no doubt they are absolutely hers.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.