Wednesday, June 15, 2016. It’s insanely hot, so I’ve been doing my summer reading because:
- Reading is sweat-free . Even diehard bicyclists like me drink TWO BOTTLES OF WATER per fifteen miles when it’s 95 degrees and stop for a LEMONADE halfway through the ride. And we’re still dehydrated.
- You can’t garden till night! because it’s so hot that if you water the flowers in the heat they’ll steam.
- Books take you away from your garden-variety internet addiction. (We’ve all been there.)
I predict that two novels I recently read, Emma Cline’s The Girls and Barbara Trapido’s Temples of Delight,will one day be considered women’s classics. Am I right?
First up: Emma Cline’s The Girls. If you loved Donna Tartt’s eerie first novel, The Secret History, this may well be your favorite novel of the summer.
Told from the point of view of Evie Boyd, a middle-aged woman who at 14 was involved with a Manson-like cult in the Bay area, the narrative shifts back and forth between Evie’s present as an unemployed home aide house-sitting for a friend and her memories of the summer of 1969 when she was a lonely upper-class adolescent with a crush on Suzanne, one of the cult leader Russell’s girls. Evie did not kill anyone, but she is haunted by her memories.
Cline’s style is hypnotic as she captures Evie’s dreamy passivity. Evie’s rock-and-roll-inspired dreams of sex and Haight-Asbury make her vulnerable. She is alone most of the time: her father has left her mother for a younger woman, her mother is dating, and she and her best friend, Connie, a chubby girl who “swore I could pass for sixteen,” are growing apart.
Cline knows how to set a mood, and The Girls is more about mood than action.
It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too—you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.
Later, when she is in college, Evie recognizes that many girls are nostalgic for the sixties. But Evie cannot be nostalgic beause of the massacre. She became involved with the cult after she saw a group of girls who held hands and seemed very close. When she sees them dumpster-diving for food, she is fascinated by Suzanne, a dark-haired beauty. The next time she sees her, Suzanne is being kicked out of a store as a potential shoplifter. Evie runs after her and offers to “lift’ the toilet paper, though actually she pays for it. On another occasion, when her bike breaks down on a country road, the cult’s van stops and one of the girls invites Suzanne to the ranch. Suzanne tries to discourage her, obviously protective, but Evie wants to go. She loves the dope and the partying, and occasionally spends the night, sleeping with Suzanne. She likes the leader, Russell, a persuasive guy who has a reputation for seeing into people’s souls, has sex with all the girls, and believes he will get a record deal because of a friendship he has cultivated with a Gold Record-winning musician. But she always prefers Suzanne.
In the present, Evie is lonely and friendless. She almost feels she doesn’t exist because no one ever sees her. Then there is a “break-in” at the house, which fortunately is only her host’s son, Julian, a drug dealer, and his teenage girlfriend, Sasha, who have come to crash. Worried about Sasha, she remembers her experiences with the cult.
This fascinating novel reminds me of an equally brilliant debut novel published by a small press, Surveys by Natasha Stagg, which I wrote about here. In Stagg’s book, the narrator, Colleen, has a job at the mall in a marketing office giving surveys, and loses herself at home in online life. The internet connects her with a man who used to be famous, and they meet and fall in love and become a famous internet couple. The narrators of both novels are passive, drifting young women. Perhaps the psychology of this praticular kind of woman is accurate, but don’t you miss confident heroines? Think Margaret Drabble, Alice Adams, Bobbie Ann Mason, or Barbara Trapido.
On to Barbara Trapido!
Barbara Trapido’s Temples of Delight (1990), shortlisted for the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, is one of the most charming novels I’ve ever read. Think Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, with a touch of Nancy Mitford and Nora Ephron. Trapido’s sharp, witty novel centers on Alice Pilling, a bright young woman who eventually studies classics at Oxford. But the main event of her life is her teenage friendship with Jem McCrail, who shows up one day in Miss Aldridge’s Silent Reading Hour at school. Jem’s unusual stories about her eccentric family, her ability to recite poetry, and her habit of scribbling her own very good novels in notebooks, make her a star who inspires love and hate equally among the students.
Alice is fascinated by Jem’s quiet comical rebeillion against Miss Aldridge. She does not even skim the book Miss Aldridge gives her.
Jem, Alice noticed, had cast a jaundiced eye over the spine of the Cromwell biography. She waited for Miss Aldridge to proceed down the aisle before coolly extracting from the toolbag a battered paperback entitled The Leopard, by one Giuseppe Lampedusa. This she placed deftly within the covers of the Cromwell biography and soon appeared lost in its pages.
So very funny! It’s one sentence after another like that.
But back to the plot: After Jem disappears (she doesn’t get the scholarship she needs) Alice is lonely. At Oxford, she likes classics and likes her fellow students but is more or less taken over by Roland, a teacher at a boys’ school whom she meets when he accidentally knocks her over on a tow path. Roland is very sweet but patronizing toward women, so we’re all happy when she rents a room in the house of an eccentric family who are worthy of Jem’s own stories (and the teenage daughter reads them, because Alice sill has Jem’s notebooks). Then one day she hears from Jem again.
Just a brilliant book!
By the way, Bloomsbury has been reissuing Trapido’s books. Last summer I read Brother of the More Famous Jack (winner of a Whitbread special prize for fiction), and I am looking forward to her other books.