Just finished Emma Clines’s THE GIRLS, which is one of those phenom books: the author is 27 years old and apparently got a two million dollar advance. So, obviously, I was prepared to hate it. But I did not. In fact, the book is shockingly good. I’d go so far as to call it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The thing about this book is that it is very well-written. Now let me take a moment here to digress on the subject of calling a book “well-written.” For most people who write about books, this is a blow-off compliment. They call a book well-written in lieu of having anything else to say about it. For many of the rest, they think they mean something when they say “well-written,” but their definition of well-written is very different from mine. For me, well-written means a book has two of the following three things: a) insight (it shows me new things); b) clear seeing (it shows me new ways of looking at old things); and c) melodic. Most books, even very good books, have none of these qualities. Only a few books have two of them. Only a few writers (Virginia Woolf comes to mind) have all three.
This book is in that category. The writing is tremendous. It’s a shame that I listened to the book on audiotape, because I don’t have many passages singled out to give you. But here I went back and searched out one of my faves and retyped it for you:
“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes”
It’s all there. The fine use of language (I was particularly struck by the novel use of the word “slur.”) The insight that shines through in the image of these girls feeling something so deeply and expressing that feeling in tired old language. And rhythm: sentences with complex structures that are guided more by sound than rules of syntax (i.e. “how impersonal and grasping our love was” rather than “our love was impersonal and grasping”)
Fantastic. Every fifteen or twenty seconds, I’d say to myself, “Shit, that’s impressive.” I have no idea how a writer learns to do this: simply be brilliant, page after page, paragraph after paragraph.
And if you have this ability to be brilliant, how do you decide to settle down and use it upon one particular story. Because the tale here, which is of a girl who’s caught up in a Manson family cult, while it’s thrilling and interesting, is almost overshadowed by the quality of the language and of the insight. In fact, the story constantly pulls back on the more garish elements, diverting you away into the story of the girl’s family life and her relationships, because it knows how easy it would be for the plot to get too complex and distract you from the real joys of the story.
That having been said, the tale itself is also great. The characters, particularly the main characters, are portrayed with so much insight. And the story itself is heart-rending. Not because people die, but because it shows, in such detail, the tremendous need–the need to be loved–that drove this girl into this situation.
The ending is fantastic. It’s a bravura monologue. One of the best I’ve ever heard.
I would recommend this book to anybody.