The Cult of the Adolescent Girl

girlsThe Girls

By Emma Cline

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.
Via Goodreads


We meet Evie Boyd in a waystation, housesitting for a friend when she hears voices in the house in the middle of the night. Part of her wants to lie still and accept whatever fate may befall her but she gets up and discovers her friend’s son with his girlfriend in tow. She recognizes him and is relieved, and in an attempt to remind this suddenly grown young man of who she is, he remembers – she’s that girl with that cult. This simple, terrifying situation – strangers in a house and the knowledge of what could be done – effortlessly builds the first bookend for the story.

Evie was fourteen the summer she met the group who lived on the hard-scrabble ranch. Cline’s descriptions of adolescent yearning are spot on. The inability to know what to do with your feelings. The posturing for attention. The need to be seen. Evie experiments with these feelings through her best friend’s older brother. But then she sees Suzanne, one of the girls from the ranch, and her attention lands there. Cline doesn’t draw a clear line to identify Evie’s feelings; they simply are what they are and they influence her mightily.
Abandoning her best friend and her divorced parents, Evie begins to spend more time at the ranch under the thrall of Suzanne and Russell, a Manson-like leader. She takes on their beliefs – rejecting her mother’s inherited money even as she steals from her to give to the group – and their lifestyle – dumpster diving and clothes sharing are common occurrences.
The danger builds slowly as Evie is brought into seemingly innocent situations that she begins to realize are worse than they seem, such as breaking into someone’s home not to steal something but to move things slightly, disconcerting the homeowner just because you can. She becomes more complicit with each act until she runs away to live at the ranch, throwing her lot in with them.

As Evie is on the periphery and fourteen during the events of the story, her knowledge of the capabilities of the group is imperfect and spotty. She is even left behind during the climactic event (again, think Manson here) by Suzanne, maybe to keep her safe, maybe because she’s mad at Evie.

Her childhood brush with violence unsettles the rest of her life. She moves from job to job, town to town, spending up her inherited money. She can still be pulled into the thrall of a cool girl’s attention, which is displayed in one sad scene with Evie and the girlfriend crashing at the house go out to dinner. All Evie wants is to be seen, but there is also danger in being seen.

The Girls
is a complex view into an adolescent girl’s mind and how easily a wish for attention can go astray. The language is at times lyrical, at others, tense, depending on the mood Cline wants to create. The ending bookends nicely with the opening scene to create a structure to explore hazy feelings.

Survival is insufficient

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
-via Goodreads
Station Eleven is one of the most lyrical post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read. This might be due to the central theme of the book – Because survival is insufficient.
Twenty years after a flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, a Traveling Symphony moves around the Michigan area to bring music and Shakespeare to the random ‘towns’ they encounter. Their mantra is painted on the side of the caravan and, while being a Star Trek reference, points to the very reason of their existence. Just surviving isn’t enough. Humans must do more and it is art that adds this ephemeral more. They solely present works of Shakespeare as his work survived plague epidemics in his lifetime as well as hundreds of years. There is a reason his work continues to resonate with people, even after a decimating flu.
The members of the Symphony see honor in what they are doing. They believe in the purpose of maintaining art in a destroyed world. Audiences have cried at their performances. They also see the pros and cons of a nomadic life. While it allows them to move along if a particular area or group of people is dangerous, it also inhibits them from feeling settled and safe.
The book begins before the existence of the Symphony, on the very night that patient zero arrives in Toronto. Arthur Leander, a famous actor, is onstage performing Leer when he has a heart attack. An EMT-in-training in the audience jumps up to save him but it is not to be. Afterward, while ruminating about his failure to save a life as well as his pleasure in having the ability to attempt to save a life, the EMT receives a call from a doctor friend warning him to leave town because of the flu. The EMT instead buys many carts full of groceries and drags them to his brother’s apartment to take care of him (his brother is wheelchair-bound.)
A young actress, Kirsten Raymonde, watches Arthur die. They were friends, in so much as a grown man can be a friend to a nine year-old girl. He was nice to her, even gave her copies of a comic book called Station Eleven. We meet her again in the Traveling Symphony. She still loves to act and every time they perform a play, she feels happy. She remembers Arthur, even twenty years later, and collects anything she can find on him – articles from magazines, pictures, etc. She has practically memorized the comic books about a group of people trapped on a spaceship that left Earth to save them.
The comic books are the work of Arthur’s first wife, an artistic outlet for herself. Over several decades she only made the two installments and paid to have a small run printed herself to give to friends and family. Arthur got two sets – one he gave to Kirsten, the other went to his son living in Israel with his mother, Arthur’s second wife. The comics detail tensions between the people who are in charge and those who live Undersea (most of the ship is flooded). The story mirrors the tensions of the post-apocalyptic world. There are those who try to take charge and change things, for better or worse, and there are always those who don’t like how that is being handled so the threat of revolt throbs.
The Symphony enters a town they had visited before, hoping to see two members who had stayed behind to give birth to their child. The town has changed. Their friends are no longer there. A prophet is in charge and his speech after their show is so unsettling the caravan packs up immediately to leave. Unfortunately, a stowaway is discovered some miles outside of the town. They keep the stowaway – a young girl who was going to be forced to be one of the prophet’s wives – but incur the wrath of the prophet. The Symphony is separated but they always make a plan. Everyone knows the next destination and heads there.
The next destination is the Museum of Civilization in an airport in Severn City.
Despite rumors that the prophet was once at Severn City, the Symphony presses on. Kirsten and her friend August travel on their own after the Symphony abandons them while they are fishing.
We get to learn about the airport at Severn City through the eyes of Clark, a university friend of Arthur’s who was traveling to Toronto for his funeral when his flight was diverted due to the flu. Twenty years later, there are a couple hundred people living at the airport. They have created tents for themselves inside various hallways for privacy. There are hunters for meat and a garden out back. Clark, thinking of his boyfriend who he can only assume died in the plague, curates a museum in the VIP lounge. He includes any item from the time before – cell phones, magazines, high-heeled shoes. He also maintains objects from people they have lost.
Clark uses the museum to teach the generation born after the pandemic about the world before, a world filled with air travel and television and cell phones and the internet.
“There had been countries, and borders. It was hard to explain.”

It sounds like magic to the children. New arrivals at the airport visit the museum for comfort or to donate items for display.
Throughout it all, we receive flashbacks to various points in Arthur’s life as an actor. These scenes provide an interesting commentary on the current role of art in our modern culture – what is appreciated, what is entertainment, etc. Arthur takes on the role of King Leer because he wants to get back to acting, despite his Hollywood success. He also decides on his final day that he wants to give it all up to move to Israel to be with his son. None of the fame or money or accolades is more important than knowing his son and ensuring his son knows him.
The threat of the prophet is an interesting antagonist in Station Eleven. His focus is purely religious. There is no room for art, only his individual view of the Bible and his interpretation of the meaning of the plague. His totalitarian rule is terrifying from a distance but clearly provides some relief for others.
“No one ever things they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.”
It raises an interesting question. Is the prophet worse than members of the Symphony, some of whom sport tattoos marking their kills? Depends on your point of view.
The way that the prophet ties into the intertwining characters is heartbreaking. Actually, the entire book is heartbreaking, even with the hope that rises at the end. There must be more than just existing and there must be things to remember.
Art as something worth preserving. Humanity is something worth preserving.
“First, we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”

Art helps us remember. Survival is insufficient.

The unknowable other

It begins with a statement of intent.
The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”
Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
And then launches into the first document in the epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Bee’s perfect report card. This perfect report card allows her to cash in on her parent’s deal and demand a trip to Antarctica. Surprised, her parents Bernadette and Elgie, agree.
More documents follow. Emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant in India. Notes and emails to and from Aubrey, Bernadette’s contentious neighbor. Emails from Bee’s private school to the parents. Emails from Elgie to a doctor about the state of his wife’s mental health. A lengthy article on Bernadette’s former illustrious architect career.
Epistolary novels show the limits of how we know someone. How easy it is to misinterpret someone’s email or text. How one picture of a person is drawn by how they interact with a friend and a different person emerges with an enemy. Shifting through the documents allows the mystery of each character, as well as the story, to unfold by forcing a limited perspective on each character. We learn about them as they present themselves to different audiences – friends, colleagues, the school administrators. The perspective expands with each additional document but is very easy to see how each character misinterprets another through these documents. They think they know the person and have generated a distinct picture of that person in their mind. Yet there is always something else – another document, another person’s perspective – that constantly shifts the sands.
The only exception is Bee. There are no documents to or from Bee. Instead, her first person commentary is interspersed between various documents, often clarifying an event that she was at. Early on I wondered how Bee had access to the documents. Sure, she could have hacked her mom’s email and gotten those documents but the neighbor’s emails and later, strangely, faxes? This is eventually answered but the mystery, one of many, carries through the book.
One of the main things I took away from Bee’s comments was her love and respect for her mom. None of the other views of Bernadette are positive, even the one presented by Bernadette in her lengthy emails to her virtual assistant. Having Bee’s stories about her mother’s support or a moment they shared kept me invested in learning who Bernadette really is.
Especially after her disappearance.
Two days before they are supposed to leave on the trip, Bernadette disappears. Bee’s hope remains even when her father’s disappears. I found myself rooting for Bee in her quest to find her mother, in the documents and in the world.
There are so many interesting reveals in the final third of the book that I don’t want to get into them. I found them all satisfying, even though the final document confirms Bee’s initial statement. I think we all want to be known and to know those we love. You can never really know someone which is quite sad.

But I agree with Bee – it’s worth it to try.

There were three of us

Henry Whittaker is the son of an orchardman at Kew. He learns his father’s trade, aware of the disparity between his father’s station (hence his own) and the royalty around him. Henry begins to steal plants from Kew to sell on the black market. He is caught but once it is learned how much he was able to steal without anyone knowing, he is put to work on ships sent around the world to ensure nothing else is stolen. Henry has big plans for himself and after several attempts, manages to secure prosperity. He also secures a Dutch wife and they move to Philadelphia. Henry builds his wealth from plants and soon his American greenhouses and international ventures make him the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, if not the Western Hemisphere.
While The Signature of All Things begins with Henry, it is not his story. Alma Whittaker, his daughter, is born in 1800. Alma is by no means a pretty girl but she is smart and capable. Her education is in her father’s ever-expanding library and at the dinner table, which is always filled with erudite and interesting people. She is admired by her father and all is well until she suddenly acquires a sister. The Whittakers take in the girl, change her name from Polly to a more appropriate Prudence and begin to educate both girls formally with a tutor. Alma is unable to truly comprehend what has happened.
Later in life, when Alma was a woman of science, she would better understand how the introduction of any new element into a controlled environment will alter that environment in manifold and unpredictable ways, but as a child, all she sense was a hostile invasion and a premonition of doom.
The introduction of new elements and the changes that indubitably occur is a prominent theme of The Signature of All Things. Prudence and Alma make a friend who is an interesting third that brings them closer for a time. Men enter the picture as they grow older. There’s the tutor, a local printer, an artist who draws the most exquisite botanical prints. All of these people enter Alma’s life and forever change her.
As do the leavings, for people also eventually leave for one reason or another.
When Alma is alone, and much older, she finally decides to leave her cocoon of a life and travel. She has been living in a microcosm – her family home in Philadelphia, studying the same mosses on rocks for decades – and it is time to crack open the cocoon and explore. She is searching, constantly searching, for answers, for new ideas, for love. In her own, independent and defiant way, she finds what she seeks.
Alma is a beautifully complicated character. She is smart and curious. She is unattractive and knows it. She is a caretaker who can be jealous. She is scared and she is courageous.  All of the characters have depth, whether plumbed or not, which creates a richness around Alma. She may have been raised among exotic plants that need studying and interest but it is the people around her that confound and require the most work to discern.
Elizabeth Gilbert has written a wonderful novel about love and family and yearning. It begins formally, like a historical tome about Henry Whittaker and his life and travels. Alma’s early years begin to transition to a more narrative style and once she is old enough to begin having opinions and asking questions, we are distinctly with Alma as she negotiates life. The formal tone never truly disappears but that feels appropriate for a novel about an academic woman in the nineteenth century.
The ending is quiet but Alma’s mind is quiet. How glorious it is to feel connected even while alone.
There were three of us.

As cool as a winter wind

The cover for A Reliable Wife is deceiving. It was the sole reason why I kept moving past the book every time I saw it despite the note that it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. A couple of people must have liked it but I didn’t give the book a chance because of that sassy red dress and midnight train.

There was no male arm snaking around her waist so it wasn’t a romance – at least not a typical romance. The author’s name threw me as well – Robert Goolrick. Men don’t write romances, do they? Maybe they do but use a pseudonym.

One time I flipped the paperback over to read the description.

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for a “reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.”

The first time I read that, it did nothing. Then last week, while Christmas shopping at Target, I saw A Reliable Wife again, walked by it three times again, read the back and tossed it in my cart. I’m not sure what made my wrist flick and send the pages flapping but I am so glad I did.

If you haven’t already (one of those readers who sent it to the NYT list), go read it now. Buy yourself a Christmas present, find a blanket, and settle down. And trust me on the blanket.

In the early days of winter in 1907 Wisconsin, Ralph Truitt waits at the train station to greet the woman who answered his advertisement for a reliable wife. He married once before, even had children, but they are all gone and he has been alone and lonely for twenty years. The small spark of hope that he refuses to call love still burns in him and he tells himself he wants a companion, that’s all.

He is rich and owns the town. He inherited the business from his father after gallivanting through Europe in search of pleasure, bringing his young Italian wife with him. Ralph is reserved and still and at times very scared of what his life has become.

Catherine Land steps off the train looking nothing like the photograph she mailed with her letter. That’s because she isn’t who she says she is. Catherine has lived the only life of independence afforded to women at the time and has the emotional scars to prove it. She dreams of a life of love and money, and Ralph Truitt will serve her purposes fine.

Only there is a twist. Ralph has finally found his son Antonio and wants his new wife to go fetch him. He hopes a woman’s touch will melt his son’s heart and coax him home. In a lovely twist, instead of Catherine being surprised by the identity of his son, she happily spends the week in bed – Ralph’s son is her lover who set her on the course of murder.

Goolrick continues the surprises as Ralph, Catherine and Antonio are surprised by the choices they make, the changes that shift in their souls. The ending seems inevitable but only after it has occurred. It is difficult to keep revealing new tricks while making each one seem fresh and appropriate.

On another small craft point, I loved how Goolrick used different sentence styles for dialogue and thought. His characters speak in short sentences, rough and abrupt and not at all forthcoming. But the paragraphs describing inner thought and intent can ramble and meander to circle the main point that character is obsessing over. The contrast between inner and outer speech is just one of many counterbalances that Goolrick employs to demonstrate his central theme that there are hidden depths in us all.

Much of the foreshadowing occurs through landscape and descriptions of the town. The action occurs during the long, blinding winter when bright snow covers everything. Catherine keeps the shades drawn during the day to keep the glare at bay. Items are lost in the snow. Feelings are buried. Fires smolder under the cold.

Which leads to how A Reliable Wife isn’t a romance but is a very sexy and sensual story. Ralph is preoccupied with his carnal longings. His memories of youth are riddled with drugs and orgies and no consequences. He also remembers his mother’s strict religious mores and how they were impressed on him. He imagines the people in his town and what must happen behind closed doors and is tremendously jealous.

Catherine is restrained with Ralph once they are married – she is trying to maintain her farce of a virginal missionary’s daughter. With Antonio, she is free and revels in her love of his touch. She allows him to do whatever he wants. His pleasure means everything.

The cold of winter melting into spring is the perfect metaphor for the building desires of all three characters. And it is the onset of spring weather that achieves the tragic climax. Goolrick did a wonderful job of marrying form and function. Instead of just describing the landscape to set a scene for a reader who has never seen Wisconsin, the landscape and weather is a key player in the story and conveys mood and thought.

In the back of the book, Goolrick cites Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip as a key inspiration for his frozen Wisconsin. Goolrick writes:

Its collage of words and photographs paint a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century. We had imagined the cities to be teeming with moral turpitude and industrial madness, and rural America to be sleeping in a prosperous innocence, filled with honest and industrious people. Not so. Lesy unlocks the Pandora’s box of country life to show us its dark and ravaged soul.

Goolrick’s Wisconsin is terrifying with crimes committed with no apparent reason, madness and suicides a regular occurrence. The house might be freshly painted white with windows warm from light within but that doesn’t mean everything is all right. A Reliable Wife is nerve-wracking and poignant and doubly chilling for me since I read it during a week of below freezing days.

*Winter picture via Earth Water Sky.

**For more information about Wisconsin Death Trip, visit the book’s Wikipedia page and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Some photos are posted below. Can I tell you how much I want that book now?