Written by: Emma Cline
Rating: 2 / 5 stars
Summary: 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, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
“There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts never begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline […] as if the presentiment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before. “
Review: I wanted so desperately to like this book, just as much as Evie Boyd wanted to be accepted by the cult she unwittingly joined. Both wants were left unfulfilled.
I, like many people, have a morbid fascination with and vital distance from the macabre. I love a good crime story, a good psychological thriller, a good story about a murderous cult fashioned after the Manson Family, so when I read the summary for it and saw that it was offered as a Book of the Month, I immediately chose it as my book for that month. But there’s so much about Cline’s book that fell extraordinarily short of the mark. Don’t get me wrong: Cline is an incredible writer, in the sense that she writes almost poetically. The way she describes even the most mundane of scenes was beautifully and masterfully crafted… but she failed to make it interesting, or anything that special. The cult that she creates is too much of a cheap imitation of Manson’s for it to feel at all original. The story is all told through the protagonist, Evie’s, eyes, and she’s barely involved with the cult, so you don’t truly see the darkest, deepest parts of it. The book is split into thirds: one part covering Evie’s life before cult, which is predictably boring and tepid; one part covering her time with the cult, which is underdeveloped and unfulfilling; and the other part covers her life as a middle-aged woman after the events take place, and that part is unnecessary and mundane. The only lesson that it seems that Cline is trying to push is how insecure girls are, commonly having the main character talk about how badly she needs approval and can’t do anything without someone giving her exact directions to – and that’s not a lesson I can get down with. So why should I have enjoyed this book at all?
Normally, I go on a rant about the characters for a paragraph, highlighting my favorites and my least favorites… but I can’t even do that for this book. Every single character was either flat or incredibly detestable. Our so-called “protagonist” Evie is annoying, naive, and ignorant in both her fourteen-year-old narration and her mid-life narration. She never grows a spine and by pure “luck” doesn’t even participate in the worst of the cult’s doings – so we never see them on the page, since the story is through her POV. She only distantly understands and acknowledges how she was psychologically manipulated to be in the cult, and years later wonders what would have happened if she had gone to the scene of the massacre that inevitably takes place. That scene is what I wanted to see, a naive Evie finally understanding what she got herself into – but she never does. Besides her, all of the members of the cult are basically just shadowy figures mentioned to plump up the plot a little bit, even the charismatic and hypnotic leader of the cult, Russell, who seems to only be some wanna-be rockstar denied of his shot who turns psychotic. The only member of the cult who even slightly peaked my interest was Suzanne. She is the girl who brings Evie into the cult and acts as her mentor of sorts while she’s a part of it, grooming her for errands the cult needs done and bringing her deeper and deeper into it… but she is also the one who eventually pushes her out. Suzanne seems fifty shades of messed up, but they never fully get into why she’s there or what’s wrong with her, which I feel was another missed opportunity by Cline. Pretty much every character was a missed opportunity by Cline, actually; she failed to properly portray what exactly a psychopath/sociopath is and how their victims get sucked in, and that was what this story should have been about.
Ultimately, this book fell very short of what I admit were very high expectations… but it is my strong belief that if you intend to write a psychological thriller book, you have to have a better understanding and explanation of the psychology in the story, as well as offer more twists and cliffs than a normal story. Cline’s book struggled from more than just plot issues, however; her characters were not developed well enough for me to feel any sort of connection to or sympathy for them, and even the dialogue fell short of meaning anything to me. It is a shame, because she is a talented writer, using beautiful metaphors and a strong vocabulary to tell the story, but she failed to choose a topic that more accurately shows these strengths. I am interested in reading some of Cline’s future work, however, as her style of writing does intrigue me. I just hope she chooses a more original topic next time.