Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Review copies of the books below were provided by the publishers.The Girls by Emma Cline
Narrator: Cady McClain
Published by Random House on June 14, 2016
Genres: Psychological Suspense
Length: 9 hr. 44 min. (Audiobook)
Goodreads | Amazon
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.
The Girls is a vaguely feminist fictionalization of the Manson murders. Our narrator is Evie, an insecure 14-year-old girl who becomes infatuated with the dark-haired 19-year-old Suzanne. Suzanne is one of the slavishly devoted paramours of Russell, an aspiring musician and charismatic leader of the cultish commune that embroils Evie in increasingly sketchy activities.
First Sentence: “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive, the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air.”
Positives: I’m really impressed with the Cline’s writing. She knows how to capture abstract emotions and ideas in succinct, lyrical sentences that read beautifully over audio.
Negatives: Unfortunately, the characters fell completely flat for me. I was engaged at the beginning of the book, when I was still trying to suss out their personalities and motivations, but by the second half of the book I was throughly disenfranchised. The Girls is more character study than suspense novel. In order for that to work, you have to be able to empathize at least a little bit with the main character, but I found this exceptionally difficult.
Driven by a desperate need for love and a sense of belonging, Evie surrenders all independent thought to the older and none-the-wiser Suzanne, following her around like a lost puppy. She even goes so far as to unenthusiastically satisfy Russell’s sexual desires on a regular basis just to stay in the club and close to Suzanne, surrendering her dignity and individuality to a pathological degree.
I don’t require characters to be sympathetic or likable, but I do need some kind of an anchor point where I can identify with some aspect of their motivation or experience. I could find no anchor point with Evie, much less with any of the other characters. Despite this, the book might have been saved if there had been some sustained suspense throughout the novel; Unfortunately, the outcome was utterly predictable.
Conclusion: Despite Cline’s obvious talent for wordcraft, The Girls left me feeling flat. I can understand why many book bloggers liked it so much, but it wasn’t for me.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday on August 2, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320 (ARC)
Goodreads | Amazon
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey.
I read The Underground Railroad a few weeks before the hype train went into overdrive when it was chosen for Oprah’s book club, so my opinion is untainted by the sonorous buzz.
The Underground Railroad is a fictionalized alternate history that literally reimagines the Underground Railroad as a railroad running through tunnels all throughout the country. Cora, our heroine, escapes from her plantation of residence and travels along the railroad, stopping at various points in so-called safe havens whilst awaiting the next train and the next leg of the journey.
First Sentence: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”
Positives: The concept of this book is genius. The Underground Railroad of this story is concrete brick and mortar, and yet the impracticality of such a track lends a fantastical quality to the narrative. At points it feels like magical realism, despite the lack of any overtly magical elements. This quality is evident in the descriptions of the underground stations, some of which are high caverns bedazzled with all manner of unrealistically luxurious decor.
Along Cora’s journey, she experiences–with the reader as witness–various attitudes and cultural responses to free black men and women. In South Carolina, for example, a liberal attitude towards the advancement of former slaves belies their secretive exploitation as unsuspecting lab rats in syphilis experiments (based on the horrifyingly real Tuskegee experiment of the 20th century). In North Carolina, Cora encounters the more blatantly aggressive lynchings typical of the 19th and 20th century South. This cultural exploration is the book’s greatest strength and most interesting aspect.
Cora is a compelling character. Her opponents, the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway, and his assistant, a free black man named Homer, read almost like characters from myth. They fit well with the fantastical imagery of the Underground Railroad, though they don’t seem quite real.
Negatives: The Underground Railroad ticks all the boxes for me–great concept, interesting characters, intelligent cultural analysis–and yet there was something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’ve been wracking my brain for weeks trying to figure out what it is, but I am unable to identify or articulate it. Perhaps some of the fantastical elements distanced me from the characters a little too much or maybe there was something about the writing that rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t say for sure.
Conclusion: I certainly enjoyed this book, but there was some indefinable quality that was missing for me. I was surprised when Oprah picked it for her book club. I would have expected her to pick something like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Speaking of Homegoing…
Homegoing on June 7, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
Goodreads | Amazon
Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America.
Homegoing is a multi-generational saga spanning two continents and over two hundred years of history. The story follows two Ghanaian sisters: Effia, who marries an Englishman and goes to live in Cape Coast Castle, and Esi, who is sold into slavery and passed through the castle dungeons on the brutal journey to the plantations of the American South.
First Sentence: “The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.”
Positives: Each chapter follows a different character, alternating between the descendants of Effia in Ghana and Esi in America. They read almost like a series of interconnected short stories. Of course the challenge with short stories is to make the reader feel invested in the main character within the space of just a few pages. Gyasi conquered this challenge with ease.
The characters are incredibly human–people who sold their kin into slavery and were sold by them, people who sided with colonialists when it suited them and people who resisted at any cost, people who were brave and cowardly, people who followed the crowd and people took the path less traveled. Gyasi unpacks the full spectrum of human emotion and morality.
The writing is absolutely beautiful; it captured me from the very first paragraph. In particular, the imagery is a strong point. Before reading Homegoing I had never seen any photos of Cape Coast Castle or the Ghanaian landscape (on the latter–none that I vividly remember). Gyasi painted those scenes vividly in my head and when I Googled some photos after finishing the book, it felt almost as if I had seen them before.
Negatives: The first half of the book is definitely stronger than the second half. There were times later in the book when I felt that the author let her voice–and the message she was trying to communicate–speak louder than her characters. I would also note that the ending was fairly predictable, though I don’t feel that this lessened its power any. Neither of these relatively minor flaws diminished my enjoyment of the book.
Conclusion: Homegoing is, without a doubt, one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year. I highly recommend it.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?