What’s with all these recently published novels with “girl” in the title? Moira Macdonald investigates, reviewing “The Girls” by Emma Cline, “The Girls in the Garden” by Lisa Jewell, “Sarong Party Girls” by Lu-Lien Tan and “The Lost Girls” by Heather Young.
It’s summer, and the girls are back in town — on bookshelves, that is.
It all started, perhaps, with Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its two sequels. Then came “Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn’s deliciously wicked hall-of-mirrors thriller that became THE beach read of 2012, and subsequently spent more than two years on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Next, in 2015, came British author Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” and Jessica Knoll’s “Luckiest Girl Alive”; both dark, twisty narratives which nicely survived the fate of being labeled “the next ‘Gone Girl.’ ”
And now … well, publishers have heard a message, loud and clear: Books with “Girls” in the title are everywhere this summer, and not just thrillers. Here are four I’ve read recently, all new this season and worth a look.
“The Girls” by Emma Cline(Random House, 355 pp., $27)
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You’ve likely heard buzz about “that Manson novel,” published last month to immediate acclaim. Cline’s debut, told mostly in flashbacks of an “endless, formless” late-1960s summer, is a first-person tale of a young woman who stood near the fires of hell, not knowing.
Evie, just 14 and floating aimlessly past her distracted mother, falls in with a cult, headed by a charismatic leader who flatters Evie with attention. The names are changed, but readers will immediately recognize this as a faintly fictionalized take on Charles Manson and his murderous “Family” — you turn the pages with breathless, tight-in-the-stomach dread.
We know, early on, that the worst doesn’t happen to Evie (she’s narrating the tale as a middle-aged woman, looking back), but Cline creates a shimmering, nightmare vision of innocence drawn to a smiling evil. And her language beautifully evokes what it feels like to be young and looking for something, anything, to embrace. Every description is poetically vivid, particularly those of Suzanne, the cult’s ringleader who instantly fascinates Evie. “How easily she evoked a kind of sloppy sexual feeling,” the girl ponders, “like her clothes had been hurried on a body still cooling from sweat.”
“The Girls in the Garden” by Lisa Jewell (Atria Books, 309 pp., $25)
Originally titled “The Girls” but changed before publication (perhaps due to potential confusion with Kline’s book), this British mystery takes place in contemporary London, where in its opening pages a 13-year-old girl is found unconscious and bloody at the end of a neighborhood summer party.
That crime then dangles before us as the narrative jumps back, introducing us to the family, the neighbors, and the communal garden they all share, where seemingly nothing bad could happen. You read wishing for something truly unexpected to occur (the book never quite recreates the jolt of its beginning) but enjoying Jewell’s depictions of mothers and daughters and the homes they occupy. Every now and then, the writing is cause for pleasant pause, with a phrasing that suddenly seems just right: “The flat had the slightly awkward air that homes often have when one returns after some time away: an uncomfortable loss of familiarity.”
“Sarong Party Girls” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan(William Morrow, 308 pp., $25.99)
“This matter of getting an ang moh [Caucasian] husband — if we are smart — it’s best to try and fasterly settle,” says narrator Jazzy, in this lively “Sex-and-the-City”-goes-to-Singapore novel. Told in dizzying Singlish, described by the author as “a tossed salad” of the different languages and dialects spoken by Singapore’s multiethnic population, its language is what gives a familiar story unique energy. (I frequently found myself wishing for a glossary; read this book with an internet connection handy.)
Jazzy and her friends flirt and drink and scheme, in the hopes of finding a life different from that of their mothers; there’s a poignancy behind the brightness. “You actually grow up,” notes Jazzy, in one of her more reflective moments, “and you look around, and the men who are all around you, the boys you grew up with, no matter how sweet or kind or promising they were, that somehow they have turned into the men that all our fathers were and still are.” It’s a cheerfully profane, subversively feminist tale.
“The Lost Girls” by Heather Young (William Morrow, 341 pp., $25.99)
Young’s debut novel weaves back and forth in time, with memories of a 1935 night when a child disappeared from her family’s Minnesota lake house, interspersed with a near-contemporary narrative of Justine, a single mother seeking a place to make a home. The lost child’s sister, Lucy, lived to old age, finally writing down for Justine — her grandniece — her memories of that night, which Justine finds and reads upon moving to the now-empty house after Lucy’s death.
It’s a mystery that’s eventually solved, in mildly lurid detail. Though the atmosphere of that summer night (all these books, it seems, hang their hats on a summer’s night) is vivid and suspenseful, I was more taken with the beautifully drawn characters of Justine and her two young daughters, and the idea of their history as a line of women who know how to keep secrets.
And there’s a lovely sense, throughout the book, of reading and storytelling as solace. Justine, upon finding the library of her new town, happily inhales “the familiar library smell of wood and paper and dust. All around were the sibilant sounds that libraries make: the turning of pages, the shelving of books, and the whispering of librarians colluding to make a shush like the ocean on a still day. Sometimes Justine imagined this was how the world sounded to babies listening from the womb.”