At this point, every single person on Goodreads who rated this 2 stars has said the same thing: there was so much hype around this that it spoiled the reading experience. I’ll add my voice to that chorus, because even though at this point it’s an unoriginal thing to say, it’s true: I spent a fair amount of time while reading this book wondering how this could have possibly garnered so much critical acclaim.
There were seeds of potential in here, especially for me: I love cults, I love books by and about women and especially complicated and tangled friendships between them, and I love a great book cover. The cover is obviously great, and the friendship between Evie and Suzanne feels nearly-there; it’s so close to the inextricable, unhealthy, captivating relationship I think she’s going for (done to wonderful effect in Ugly Girls and Dear Thief and others).
It falls short for the same reason the rest of the book does: it feels, for lack of a better word, insecure. Cline doesn’t seem to trust what she’s effectively built up. She is absolutely successful in making us understand, over 200 pages, how Evie rejects logic in favor of the cult, and then immediately deflates it by telling-not-showing, “I wanted Russell to be kind, so he was. I wanted to be near Suzanne, so I believed the things that allowed me to stay there.” (I rarely write down specific pages in my notes; this was a particularly egregious example.) We’re in Evie’s head; we didn’t actually need this to be spelled out for us – and the minute it was, I lose faith in the narration.
This bleeds into the relentless onslaught of 1969 references. Of course part of the work of writing a period piece is that there must be a distinct sense of time & place, but it goes overboard. Any first-person narration requires a certain suspension of disbelief that’s higher than a third person POV. I am reading words made of ink on a page made of paper, so willing myself to pretend that I am seeing through another’s eyes or listening to someone tell me a real story takes a little more trust. Constantly name-dropping and referencing period-specific things punctures that suspension of disbelief – I have a hard time believing that anyone spends this much time thinking about the era they’re in. Even in the rapidly-changing and surreal 21st century, even as it feels like History Is Happening, I am not cataloguing all the things that will be historical references later.
Where this gets most frustrating is in the intersection of her often-tryhard, overwritten prose and how Cline attempts to use it (I assume) to get at some sort of fundamental richness of teenage girlhood. (The New York Times Book Review says in a blurb at the front of the book that it is “told in sentences at times so finely wrought they could almost be worn as jewelry.” This seems, to me, a stretch, unless the jewelry in question is heavy and ostentatious. Another reviewer in the same publication says “Cline has a lovely gift for the apt simile,” which is accurate but neglects to mention that she leans on that lovely gift very hard.)
Regardless of the quality of the writing itself, using a lot of interesting sentences to say the same thing over and over does not a rich experience make. The only emotions she really addresses are shame and anger, and a hot and sticky feeling that pervades the whole book.
Regardless of the quality of the writing itself, using a lot of interesting sentences to say the same thing over and over does not a rich experience make. The only emotions she really addresses are shame and anger, and a hot and sticky feeling that pervades the whole book. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why this feels so incomplete to me, except that as a white, middle-class teenage girl myself, my experience even during summers – even during depressing, lonely, friendless summers – was richer and fuller than Evie’s would suggest. In the end, the quality of the prose might very well be subjective, but more problematically it exists to make flatness feel dimensional instead of reflecting the dimension in the story.
(As always, there’s a professional who said this much better than me: “In 1963, when both The Bell Jar and The Feminine Mystique were first published, writing about feeling trapped in a suffocating dreamscape helped to destroy a false mythology about what made women happy. Fifty years on it reads as a relentless insistence on the confinements of gender, setting up shop in the bell jar, making it home.”)
Major spoilers (I guess): Two specific bits of wasted potential are emblematic of the issues I’m talking about: one that happened, and one that didn’t. The first: Evie does not participate in the murders herself. I know that this was because Suzanne had to prove she Actually Did Care, but man did it feel like a cop-out. Suzanne and Evie’s friendship is unhealthy, but it sort of… all works out. Evie is only (“only”) scarred by a codependent, toxic friendship, something I have personally been through a few times. This is a good topic for a book (Cat’s Eye anyone?) but not one that from moment one is ABOUT MURDER.
The second: Evie never identifies as a lesbian. She might not be, but all signs point to yes: she never really falls in love again, Suzanne was the reason she stayed at the ranch, she has never been able to move on, she slept in her bed and it was the most important relationship of that summer… it’s another cop-out to not dive in there. Obviously complicated, harmful, platonic relationships exist (again, hello) and are worthy of stories, but this is so steeped in early-teenage sexuality and specifically sexual discovery that it feels, again, insecure to avoid the love story she’s actually writing.
I wish Cline had trusted herself enough, and trusted her readers enough, to tell a story both of Evie and Suzanne’s awful, intoxicating friendship and all the shit that came along with it, and a story of a girl deeply unsatisfied by her life who finds meaning in a profound relationship that she eventually can recognize as love. I hope that in future books, she lets herself do that.