Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

Captivating and original. An interesting reimagining of an infamous crime.

Emma Cline is an American writer and novelist, originally from California. She published her first novel, The Girls, in 2016, to positive reviews. The book was shortlisted for the John Leonard Award from the National Book Critics Circle and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.

Emma Cline tapped deep into my psyche and kept me hooked right up until the last page. The raw honesty of the protagonist, Evie Boyd, was addictive to read as she navigated puberty, close friendships, her parent’s recent divorce, and the growing awareness of her own sexuality. Evie is a bored, aimless teenager who joins a Manson-like cult in the summer of 1969 before being shipped off to boarding school. Anchored in the present day and reflecting on past memories, Cline’s scintillating prose transported me into Evie’s world of naive, yet incredibly candid observations, portraying an unsure girl whose self-esteem is measured directly through the lens of society and her immediate relationships. How girls feel pressured to prove their worth while boys are given free rein to discover themselves is a theme I found interesting and was echoed throughout the novel.

“I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. 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.”

Evie

The idea that women are expected to mask rather than reveal their true emotions in order to be accepted and approved of is evident in Evie’s musings—past and present—something she also clearly recognizes as a middle-aged woman. It’s also the driving force behind her teenage motivations after witnessing a group of carefree hippie girls in Petaluma Park dumpster diving for food. Their reckless, carefree attitudes appeal to her insecure, isolated existence. The leader of the group, Suzanne, quickly becomes the primary focus of a curious young Evie, who soon embarks on a slippery spiral to impress—stealing money from her mother to give to the cult; breaking into a childhood friend’s home—on her intense quest for a sense of belonging.

“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. Implicated yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you”.

Evie

I enjoyed Cline’s detail-focused writing style, although described as “overwritten, flashing rather than lighting” (The New Yorker), I strongly disagree. I found her voice unique, her descriptions vivid, and I couldn’t tear myself away from Evie, curious as to how central a role she’d play in one of the most brutal murders in recent history. Overall, I loved the book from the cast of morally ambiguous characters and romantic descriptions of late-60s California to the curious coming-of-age story and manipulability of human nature. I cannot wait to read Cline’s next novel—The Guest—soon to be published in June 2023.

5/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy books about cults, coming-of-age stories, compelling female protagonists, electrifying prose, and dark psychological themes.

Published June 14th, 2016

Synopsis:

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, and 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.

Book Review: NSFW: a novel by Isabel Kaplan

Gut-wrenching, clever, and undeniably 😉 honest.

Isabel Kaplan graduated from Harvard and holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She is the author of the national bestselling young adult novel Hancock Park and a co-founder of Project 100, an organization launched after the 2016 election to support progressive women running for Congress. She previously worked in TV drama development at Fox Broadcasting Company. Isabel was born and raised in Los Angeles.

I love how real this book, NSFW (Not Safe For Work) felt. Having personally experienced a somewhat similar environment as the book’s anonymous protagonist, it was easy for me to picture the day-to-day rat race—bullshit bureaucracy, toxicity, and harassment—in the office setting, which is so effortlessly described throughout. If you’ve worked in corporate America, you’ve probably experienced or at least witnessed some level of coercion and/or complicity. And for such a serious subject matter, Kaplan lifted the tension with moments of dark humor, allowing the reader to take a much-needed breath. One of the most disturbing relationships in the book was between the protagonist and her mother. A toxic bond filled with emotional manipulation, invalidation, and gaslighting—something that affected the core of the MC. Keeping her mother happy is a full-time job, one that at times, overshadows her own sense of self-awareness, and fogs her ability to advocate for what she truly wants.

I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve personally connected to over the last two years, and NSFW is now one of them. I rank it alongside two of my favorites: Luster by Raven Leilani and Animal by Lisa Taddeo—two of my auto-buy authors.

So many scenes stick out but one that touched my heart describes the MC searching through boxes in her father’s garage when she comes across old home videos. She watches one of herself as a child in which her mother teaches her how to mount a plastic blue rocking horse to show her Nana “what a great rider” she is. She stumbles around the toy, timid at first until her mother successfully coaxes her on. After which she’s rocking back and forth saying, “See! I didn’t break anything! I’m not breaking anything!” I found this scene so symbolic and indicative of a child raised in the clutches of a narcissistic parent. A child who walks on eggshells and quickly learns to sacrifice her own needs in order to keep the peace. (A theme echoed in every chapter of NSFW.) But in order to retain a sense of her own moral principles, she must decide if silence is worth success, or if speaking the truth will break recurring toxic patterns and finally set her free.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy dark subjects in a corporate setting, compelling female protagonists, electrifying prose, and psychological themes.

Published July 5th, 2022

Synopsis:

From the outside, the unnamed protagonist in NSFW appears to be the vision of success. She has landed an entry-level position at a leading TV network that thousands of college grads would kill for. And sure, she has much to learn. The daughter of a prominent feminist attorney, she grew up outside the industry. But she’s resourceful and hardworking. What could go wrong?

At first, the high adrenaline work environment motivates her. Yet as she climbs the ranks, she confronts the reality of creating change from the inside. Her points only get attention when echoed by male colleagues; she hears whispers of abuse and sexual misconduct. Her mother says to keep her head down until she’s the one in charge―a scenario that seems idealistic at best, morally questionable at worst. When her personal and professional lives collide, threatening both the network and her future, she must decide what to protect: the career she’s given everything for or the empowered woman she claims to be.

Fusing page-turning prose with dark humor and riveting commentary on the truths of starting out professionally, Isabel Kaplan’s NSFW is an unflinching exploration of the gray area between empowerment and complicity. The result is a stunning portrait of what success costs in today’s patriarchal world, asking us: Is it ever worth it?

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A compelling read that sent shivers down my spine.

This book was on my TBR for so long and I don’t know why. I’d heard mixed reviews—overall great—but most included trigger warnings. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found specific parts interesting, particularly the protagonist’s struggle to recognize and categorize the abuse she endured, and how she continues to carry around the trauma from her past. “In someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute,” she argues. “It swallows up everything that happened.” I rated it a five-star read due to the originality and depth of the characters, and for the beautiful execution of such a dark subject matter. To those interested in the bottom line, this book isn’t a light read and it won’t make you feel good. It’s dark, complex, and thought-provoking. So be warned.

Kate Elizabeth Russell is an American author. Her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, was published in 2020 and became a national bestseller.

The story is split between two alternating timelines from the protagonist’s perspective. The current timeline establishes her routine, working a desk job at a hotel in the city and drinking and/or getting stoned in her spare time. The past timeline conveys adolescence and her budding relationship with a forty-two-year-old English professor. The chapters, although on the longer side, flow effortlessly, and I didn’t once find the pace slow, or catch myself wanting to stop reading.

From the very beginning of the book, themes of consent, complicity, and trauma vs memory are clearly depicted. We are first introduced to Vanessa as she’s getting ready for work while monitoring comments on a Facebook post from a former student accusing Jacob Strane—her old English professor—of sexual assault. We know Vanessa still keeps in touch with him. We also know her memories of what transpired between them all those years ago are foggy at best, recategorized as something other than abuse. More of a romantic retelling of a pedophile and his victim. Not only was she abused at the hands of someone who should have protected her, but now she’s suffering because of that abuse, caught in a trauma cycle, finding other ways to cope including excessive drinking, smoking marijuana, and engaging in degrading sexual acts. When Taylor, another victim, speaks out on Facebook against Strane, it triggers Vanessa to reach out to her abuser. And as the timelines unfold, her past becomes shockingly clear, and Vanessa is forced to choose between complicit silence and finally facing the ugly truth.

The cast of characters are so different I had no issues following along with the story. Each one well fleshed out and different from the last. Jacob Strane’s character was the most disturbing, especially reading of the manipulative ways he minimized his actions, groomed and gaslit Vanessa, making her believe she was the one responsible for allowing their ‘relationship’ to transpire. “I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’s noted saying. The most painful thing about reading this book is how the author makes it inevitably clear to the reader how much of a predator Strane is, and yet, Vanessa (past and present) cannot recognize it. She often sides with him and feels complicit, as a subconscious way of deflecting the truth. She was a victim of abuse. This is perfectly executed through the use of first person point of view, pulling the reader into Vanessa’s twisted psyche.

So many scenes in the book haunt me, but probably none more than the first night Vanessa goes to stay at Strane’s house. All the details clearly signal to the reader actions of a sexual predator, but which Vanessa finds romantic and thoughtful. It’s terrifying. The food he bought for her: ice cream, chips, soda. She packs black silky negligee of her mother’s to wear, while he prefers her to wear a childlike pijama set with a pink strawberry print. What kept me reading was hope. Hope that Vanessa would see the light, look inward, and realize what happened to her wasn’t right. Hope that she would find solace in knowing she wasn’t alone. The ending was sad and yet satisfying.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy dark academia, dual timelines, compelling female narrators, and dark, complex psychological themes.

Published January 23rd, 2020

Synopsis:

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?