girl holding flowers on lap outside

Which is better, Emma Cline’s The Guest (her 2023 novel, which I previewed two days ago in the post How to Make Yourself Unwelcome) or The Girls (her debut novel, published in 2016 to critical acclaim)? If I were to recommend just one of these, which would I choose?

Though I love to make judgments like this, I cannot decide in this case. I go back and forth. The novels are so different, and so profoundly good in their different ways.

Where The Guest is smooth, a pool, The Girls is choppy, an ocean. Where The Guest is simple, The Girls is complicated. Where The Guest is contemporary, The Girls is historical. Where The Guest’s brilliance slips under the radar, The Girls’ brilliance is richly on display, every page you turn.

The Girls is purportedly about the Charles Manson cult and murders. Although the darkness of this historical tale seeps through the novel, it’s not really about that. For Cline changes so many of the historical details that reading the novel can only give one a peripheral sense of the events, not their actual truth.

Cline deals in other truths. The truths of what it might have been like to be a 14-year-old girl, caught up in the trials of adolescence, in the late 1960s, in a man’s world, and a broken family, who finds herself drawn to an alluring but dangerous cult.

The protagonist, Evie, is particularly fascinated by one of the girls in the cult, Suzanne. Here is how Evie feels upon her first sight of Suzanne:

“I couldn’t explain it to myself, the wrench I got from looking at her. She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.”

Almost the same thing? What a passage. If it is not the same thing as beauty, what is it? It must be a sort of awe and admiration and fatal attraction. The remark is—almost—beautifully said.

The Girls is haunting in its intimacy, by which I mean the intimacy of the ordinary moment. The ordinary moment when you do something embarrassing or cruel or self-destructive or inexplicable because you are so desperate for love. The ordinary moment when you, or someone else, makes a choice that chases you for the rest of your life.

When did you last think of your youth?