I couldn’t have planned this better if I’d tried. Not only are the last two books I read historical fiction, but they are both of the Single White Female variety. Yes, I am referring to that creepy (and terrible) movie from the early-nineties in which a woman becomes obsessed with her female roommate:
These two books feature female friendships that go beyond the typical BFF-relationship and stray into the dangerous, you-really-need-to-see-a-therapist realm.
Published June 14, 2016
368 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: Surely you’ve heard about Emma Cline (if you haven’t, here are 13 random facts about her). She’s the twenty-seven-year-old debut author who landed a two million dollar advance for this book—the result of a bidding war waged by twelve publishing houses (and won by Random House). The book has gotten TONS of hype. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, the #1 Indie Next List pick for June, and it’s on a bunch of best-of summer reading lists (including Publishers Weekly’s list of Best Summer Books 2016).
What it’s about: Evie is a fourteen-year-old child of divorce in the late 1960’s. She is headed to boarding school in the fall, but, before she goes, she has a summer to wile away. One day at the park, Evie sees a group of girls. They are only slightly older than Evie, but they seem worldly, interesting, beautiful. One in particular, Suzanne, shines especially brightly in Evie’s eyes.
After running into the girls a few more times, Evie manages to score an invitation to the run-down ranch where the girls live. They are part of a commune run by a Charles Manson-like leader named Russell. The girls, especially Suzanne, all idolize Russell. They are attuned to his every word and movement. And, because Evie idolizes Suzanne, she yearns to be included in the group, as well.
The book begins in present day with Evie reminiscing on how things went awry. It culminates with the details of the girls’ infamous night of murder . . . and how Evie barely managed to avoid being a party to the events of that night.
Imagine if a hipster wrote a book. What would it sound like? Perhaps this:
The rest of the afternoon passed in a drowsy span of sunlight. The skinny dogs retreating under the house, tongues heaving. We sat alone on the porch steps—Suzanne rested her head on my knees and recounted scraps of a dream she’d had. Pausing to take ripping bites from a length of French bread.
“I was convinced I knew sign language, but it was obvious to me I didn’t, that I was just flailing my hands around. But the man understood everything I was saying, like I actually did know sign language. But later it just turned out he was only pretending to be deaf,” she said, “in the end. So it was all fake—him, me, the whole train.”
Her laugh was an afterthought, a sharp addendum—how happy I was for any news of her interior, a secret meant for me alone. I couldn’t say how long we sat there, the two of us cut adrift from the rhythms of normal life. But that’s what I wanted—for even time to feel different and new, washed with special import. Like she and I were occupying the same song.
Am I saying this isn’t well written? Certainly not! Everyone knows that hipsters do things well. If you want a really freaking good cup of coffee, you get a coffee hipster to make it. If you want an amazingly delicious ice cream cone, you get it scooped by an ice-cream hipster (more on that here). Yes, you can appreciate a hipster’s craft . . . but sometimes (all the time?) it’s hard to take a hipster seriously.
This goes for a hipster who gets a two million dollar advance on a book. This hipster can obviously write—she crafts interesting turns of phrase and great bits of imagery. But some of them, although objectively hipster great, make you roll your eyes a little. Like this one: “Before she left, she stuck out her tongue at the man. Just a peep, like a droll little cat.” Or this one: “A triangle of stomach showed where the girl’s dress wasn’t fully buttoned. How easily she invoked a kind of sloppy sexual feeling, like her clothes had been hurried on a body still cooling from sweat.” Both of these phrases describe Suzanne, whom Evie idolizes. And, yes, they perfectly reveal how closely Evie is studying Suzanne, how her eye is attuned to every detail, how much meaning she imbues in every haphazard action. But “droll little cat”?! Come on, hipster. I can’t take you seriously.
And leave it to a hipster to have a creepy fascination with Charles Manson and a kinship with the Manson girls (“I wonder all the time how easily things could have turned out badly for me; my life gone curdled and sour, ending viciously.”). That said, likely because of this weird fascination, she captures the obsessive nature of cult-life very well.
There’s the idolatry:
I didn’t know how to imagine Russell. I had only the limited reference point of men like my father or boys I’d had crushes on. The way these girls spoke of Russell was different, their worship more practical, with none of the playful, girlish longing I knew. Their certainty was unwavering, invoking Russell’s power and magic as though it were as widely acknowledged as the moon’s tidal pull or the earth’s orbit.
Donna said Russell was unlike any other human. That he could receive messages from animals. That he could heal a man with his hands, pull the rot out of you as cleanly as a tumor.
“He sees every part of you,” Roos added. As if that were a good thing.
And the preying:
I experienced the whole night as fated, me as the center of a singular drama. But Russell had put me through a series of ritual tests. Perfected over the years that he had worked for a religious organization near Ukiah, a center that gave away food, found shelter and jobs. Attracting thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents, girls with hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs. His bread and butter. The time he spent at the center’s outpost in San Francisco in the old fire station. Collecting his followers. Already he’d become an expert in female sadness—a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash. A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying. Russell did the same thing to me that he did to those girls. Little tests, first. A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand. Little ways of breaking down boundaries. And how quickly he’d ramped it up, easing his pants to his knees. An act, I thought, calibrated to comfort young girls who were glad, at least, that it wasn’t sex. Who could stay fully dressed the whole time, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
She nails it. Unfortunately, the pacing of the novel does not match its writing. There’s a long stretch in the middle that is very long and slow. Evie makes her first trip to the ranch, and then there’s a huge lull. You know what’s coming, because she’s already spoken about it in the present day. As you page through more and more repetitive pages of pathetic Evie, you just want the book to get there already.
Now, to be fair, it’s worth the wait. The last forty pages of the book are GOOD. It’s a satisfying ending (which I appreciate, because those are so rare). I just wish the rest of the book had been as good.
* * * * *
The After Party
Published May 17, 2016
384 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: This was an Indie Next List pick for June 2016. The cover art caught my eye as I was scrolling through the list. It’s a picture of a glamorous woman plucking a bit of tobacco from her tongue as she smokes an unfiltered cigarette. Her eyes aren’t pictured; instead you see only her red manicured nails, multiple strings of pearls, and green gown. Very 1950. It’s good cover art, and it did its job.
What it’s about: Joan Fortier is the apple of Houston’s eye. She is beautiful and rich beyond all measure (her daddy, Furlow, is an oil man). And, unlike most ladies in their mid-twenties, she is not interested in settling down with a nice husband to keep a lovely house and raise darling children. She wants to drink, smoke, pop some pills, have fun with men (multiple men! GASP!). And she yearns to leave Houston for “somewhere big”—“where the ideas are.”
Her best friend, Cece, on the other hand, is more than content in Houston. She lives in the best neighborhood with a devoted husband, a fabulous nanny, and an adorable son. She couldn’t dream of living anywhere else. But her life is incomplete if Joan is not content.
Since they were tiny, Cece has always been more concerned with Joan’s happiness than her own. And, because Joan holds everyone at arm’s length, Cece is in a constant battle to inch a little bit closer. She yearns to make Joan happier, so she can keep her by her side in Houston.
What initially drew me to this book was the picture of 1950’s glamor captured by the cover art. And if I were reading the book for that reason alone, the cover did not lead me astray–the setting is the thing I liked most about this book. The book welcomes you to high-society Houston circa 1957. This is oil-money Houston: “There wasn’t an old guard in Houston. Our parents were it. We would have been laughed out of the society registers in most places in the country but in Houston our names meant something, even if they only went back a generation.” These ladies wear beautiful, custom-made dresses (with shoes dyed to match, of course) and jewelry so large and flashy that it looks costume (“It’s supposed to be a firework,” says one of Cece’s friends of the “diamond brooch in the shape of a starburst” that she wears on the Fourth of July). They have nannies to help care for their children, are members of the Garden Club, and stay out until the wee hours, eating raw steak, drinking gina and champagne like it’s going out of style, and chain smoking (“She lit a cigarette, exhaled over her shoulder, coughed a bit in a glamorous way that was completely contrived. [ . . .] [She]had been smoking since she was twelve. Smoke only soothed our throats.”). It’s a great, well-realized world.
I just wish as much care and attention had been paid to the story that takes place in that world. Alas, nothing interesting ever happens in this great, well-realized world.
The book begins with a perfect introduction to the Joan and Cece friendship.
In the beginning, we were both Joan. Joan One and Joan Two when our nannies dropped us off at River Oaks Elementary School for our first day of kindergarten. Our teacher, a young blond thing who was teaching rich babes their ABCs and colors until her beau finally proposed, paused as she was going through names. Paused at us, the two Joans. One fair, one dark. One, it seemed evident, even at this young age, destined to be beautiful; the other one dark, with clear, even features. Pretty enough.
“What is your middle name?” she asked me, the dark girl.
“Cecilia,” I replied. [. . .]
“Let’s say you’re Cecilia from now on. No, Cece. Has a nicer ring to it. And you”—she smiled at Joan, reassuringly—“don’t worry, you’re still Joan.”
From kindergarten, Cece’s identity is subsumed by Joan. Joan is the center of attention and Cece is happy to keep her there. But this obsessive friendship isn’t enough to sustain a book of nearly four hundred pages. There are anecdotes showing Cece’s obsession with Joan. There are anecdotes showing how Joan abuses Cece’s friendship and her attempts to help and care for Joan. There are anecdotes showing that Joan clearly isn’t as invested in the friendship as Cece is. There are anecdotes showing that Cece sacrifices her own happiness (and puts her other relationships at risk) in an effort to make sure Joan is happy. After a couple of these anecdotes, you get it. And you just want the book to go somewhere. And, when it finally does, the pay-off is anticlimactic and obvious–definitely not worth the effort to get there.
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (a LibraryReads List selection and an Indie Next List pick for June 2016)