Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

Books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

The Handmaid’s Tale gets a graphic novel. What do you think?

I’m not sure how I missed this news when it was announced earlier, but it turns out Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a graphic novel adaptation. It hits shelves tomorrow and looks absolutely gorgeous: head over to io9 to see the exclusive images from behind this edition’s enigmatic cover.

Mild spoilers for the original novel below. I’m not spoiling the ending of Offred’s story, but I will be discussing details of the novel’s structure.

The Handmaid's Tale Graphic Novel Cover.jpeg

I am fascinated by adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale because, in typical Margaret Atwood fashion, the original novel had such an unusual format. At the end of the novel, we discover that Offred had been telling her own story via cassette tape, and that we had been reading the “transcripts” of these tapes as collected by historians.

I’ve always thought that this detail is what made The Handmaid’s Tale so haunting. In the epilogue, the horrifying events we experienced through Offred’s eyes in Gilead are being dissected, sympathetically but distantly, by academics hundreds of years in the future, in a similar fashion to how many people discuss horrifying events like the Spanish Inquisition or the transatlantic slave trade today.

It’s also a detail that loses some of its magic as soon as we get visuals, whether that’s via a graphic novel or hit TV show. You can’t exactly transmit images via audio, so it’s hard to maintain the cassette tape conceit. That gives the story a myopic immediacy that I don’t love.

Despite that gripe, which I realize is pretty pedantic–I just love that original ending so much–I’m very interested in the graphic novel. I sometimes struggle to read graphic novels because my eyes just can’t seem to follow the panels correctly, but the panels previewed over at io9 seem crisp and deceptively simple in a way that I find really appealing.

The graphic novel’s art and adaptation are by Canadian artist Renée Nault, who chose not to watch Hulu’s TV adaptation in favor of forging her own visual style and version of the story. That also appeals to me, since I thought the TV show had some weird plot holes (its refusal to engage with racial inequality in a far right society like Gilead being the biggest one, I thought) and was definitely too violent for me to stomach onscreen.

My personal copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a yellowed, battered, much-thumbed trade paperback that reflects my love of this seminal novel in one way: every read and re-read are inscribed on the pages through every dog-ear, taped-up tear, and tea stain.

It looks like the graphic novel is going to reflect my love in another, equally important way: it turns a beloved book into an art object, something to be not only read, but admired page by page.

I think I’ll be heading to the bookstore for a copy when it drops tomorrow, March 26.

What do you think of this graphic novel adaptation? Are you excited, or do you have reservations? What do you think of Renée Nault’s art style? (I think her work looks a little bit like the illustrations you see in children’s books and especially children’s Bibles, which I think is an intriguing choice for the material.)

You can order The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel from the Penguin Random House website, which features handy links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other booksellers. You can also check it out over at Goodreads.

And don’t forget to check out io9’s exclusive look at the book, without which I would not have been able to write this post.

Friday Bookbag, 3.15.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I indulged in some Barnes & Noble wandering (looking for the print copy of The New Yorker that I appeared in!) and some e-book bargain hunting. I’ve been watching my spending closely over the past few months since I took so much time off of work, so I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to wander between bookstore shelves, consumed with the possibility of the damn good stories each title might hold. Lovely.

Before we dive in, I wanted to share that my heart goes out to New Zealand today and to the Muslim community around the world. I’m praying for healing, justice, and a strong rebuke of the white nationalist terror that is on the upswing online and globally. Here is a list of places you can donate to support victims of the attack and the wider Muslim community in New Zealand.

Here are the books I picked up this week:


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Sister the Serial Killer Coverthe premise: Korede is used to cleaning up after her serial killer sister, Ayoola. She keeps Ayoola’s secrets and tries to mind her own business; family comes first, after all. But when Ayoola begins to pursue a doctor whom Korede loves, putting his life at risk, Korede must choose which beloved to save.

why I’m excited: This book sounds absolutely bananas, like a grown-up and Nigerian version of Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves, a YA novel (one of my favorites!) about a set of supernatural serial killer sisters. I mean, this novel can only go spectacularly or horribly, right? And even if it goes horribly, it’s going to put on quite a show. Family, murder, love, secrets–it doesn’t get more deliciously soapy than that.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale Coverthe premise: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasilisa listens to her nurse’s fairy tales. Her favorite is the story of Frost, a blue-eyed winter demon who steals unwary souls. The village honors the spirits to protect themselves, until Vasilisa’s widowed father brings home a devout wife from Moscow, who’s determined to tame the village and her rebellious stepdaughter. Evil begins to stalk the village, and Vasilisa must call upon secret powers to protect her family from a supernatural threat.

why I’m excited: I live in a cold and sometimes frightening climate myself (for example: right now, in March, there are still knee-deep snowdrifts outside my front door!), so I have a soft spot for fantasy built around Russian folklore. This novel looks to have it all: evil spirits, evil stepmothers, dangerous protective gifts. Hell yeah. I can’t wait to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy this one. (It’s the first in the Winternight trilogy.)

Serpent in the Heather by Kay Kenyon

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Serpent in the Heather Coverthe premise: From the back cover:

Summer, 1936. In England, an assassin is loose. Someone is killing young people who possess Talents. As terror overtakes Britain, Kim Tavistock, now officially employed by England’s Secret Intelligence Service, is sent on her first mission to the remote Sulcliffe Castle in Wales, to use her cover as a journalist to infiltrate a spiritualist cult that may have ties to the murders. Meanwhile, Kim’s father, trained spy Julian Tavistock, runs his own parallel investigation–and discovers the terrifying Nazi plot behind the serial killings…

why I’m excited: This is actually the second book in Kay Kenyon’s Dark Talents series, something I didn’t realize when I bought it. (It’s not written anywhere!) The fact that the publisher is so blasé about the novel’s place in the trilogy makes me hope it’ll work as a stand-alone, since this premise is just as bananas as My Sister, the Serial Killer and also features Nazis. Nazi serial killers! Checkmate, my wallet. I had to get it.

My wife is a hardcore WWII history buff and also a big fan of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, so this is right up her alley. She’s the one who picked it off the shelf. We’ll be fighting over it, I’m sure.

Authority and Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

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Authority Coverthe premise: Authority and Acceptance are the sequels to Annihilation, which I reviewed some months ago. Together, they make up the Area X trilogy, about a lush, remote, ever-expanding land that’s deadly, full of mysteries, and seems to threaten human life as we know it. Yay! (The first book was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland, but the books definitely take things in a different direction.)

Acceptance Coverwhy I’m excited: I didn’t love everything about Annihilation, but damn, did it get under my skin. I think about it and talk about it all the time. If you love nature, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re deeply concerned with what humans are doing to the planet, you have to read this trilogy. It’s about all of that anxiety without being too literal about it. From what I’ve heard, Authority and Acceptance don’t pick up where the first book left off: they go in entirely new and exciting directions. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Ballyhoo #4: BELLY UP by Eva Darrows

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a blog feature? Both, obviously!

Ballyhoo is an on-again, off-again feature where I chat about an upcoming release I’m particularly excited about. Today I’m featuring Belly Up by Eva Darrow, a YA novel that features a lot of representation that’s dear to my heart: bisexual and queer rep, Latinx rep, fat rep, and teen pregnancy rep. All that is wrapped up in a great premise that seems fun and heartstring-tugging by turns. Let’s dive in!


Belly Up Cover

Belly Up by Eva Darrows

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Coming April 30, 2019

When 16 year old Serendipity Rodriguez attends a house party to celebrate the end of sophomore year, she has no intention of getting drunk and hooking up with a guy she’s just met, let alone getting pregnant. To make matters worse, she has no way of contacting the father and she and her mother are about to move to a new town and in with her grandmother.

It’s hard enough to start your junior year as the new kid in school, but at 5-months pregnant it’s even harder. So when Sara meets Leaf, who asks her out and doesn’t seem to care that she’s pregnant, she finds herself falling.

Juggling the realities of a pregnancy with school and a new relationship are hard enough, but when Jack, the father of her baby, turns back up, Sara’s life goes from complicated to a complete mess. With the help of her overbearing mother and grandmother, Sara will learn to navigate life’s challenges and be ready for anything, as she prepares for the birth of her baby.

It’s hard to avoid Juno comparisons when you’re talking about a teen pregnancy story, and Belly Up is already getting plenty of comparisons to Juno. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–Juno is one of my favorite movies, in part because of the “corny” teen dialogue everyone seems to hate–but I’m most excited for Belly Up because of the unique spins it puts on your average teen pregnancy story.

First, check out the cover of the novel! How often do you get to see a teen girl who looks both fat* and totally badass and confident on a book or movie cover? Pretty much never. That would be enough to get me intrigued about Belly Up on its own. (Especially because most of the world seems to forget that fat people do, in fact, go on dates, have sex, and get pregnant, including in high school.)

I love seeing a book that is comfortable conveying that its main character is fat without making it the center of the story. (It’s not even mentioned in the blurb.)

Next, Serendipity “Sara” Rodriguez is clearly written as Latina (she’s apparently biracial)–and yet, similarly to her fatness, that part of her identity is being treated as important without being the only important thing about her. I have nothing against “issue novels” about latinidad that get into complex questions about identity and belonging; I’ve read a great many of them. But I love seeing Latinx teens get other kinds of rep where they face other kinds of problems, too.

Lastly, this book is SUPER queer. It was featured on Book Riot’s list of 2019 bisexual YA books because of its “bisexual, biracial, fat, and ace representation.” I’m going to use these next couple paragraphs to talk about the “bisexual” and “ace” part since I’ve already covered the other two.

It’s truly amazing how far queer rep and acceptance among teens has come in the past ten years or so. I’m only 24, and I distinctly remember how nerve-racking it was to first come out as a lesbian to my friends when I was 16-17. I didn’t fully come out till a semester or two into college, when I was 19 or 20. And even that is so much earlier than many lesbians of previous generations got to come out.

Now, many teens are out of the closet before they’re even in high school. (The idea of the “closet” is itself starting to seem like a silly idea!) Queer teens still face immense challenges–especially transgender teens–but I’m delighted at how much brighter the queer future seems now than it did when I was 13, especially when it comes to representation. (See: the rest of that Book Riot list.)

That’s why books like Belly Up seem so precious to me. Sara’s relationship with Leaf seems so far from the simplistic coming out narratives that dominated when I was a teenage book blogger. I don’t recall ever reading a book that even touched on ace (asexual) identity until I was in my late teens, and maybe not even then. Maybe I’m just projecting my real-life experiences with my ace peers into a book I wish had existed. Who knows!

My point is that Sara seems like an awesome, multidimensional heroine dealing with a tough situation as best she can. How exciting that today’s YA is big enough for stories like these. I can’t wait to read this one, both for the book-loving adult I am now and the starved-for-rep, book-loving teen I was not so long ago.

Do you have your heart set on Belly Uptoo? What’s your ballyhoo this week? Let me know all about it in the comments–I’m always looking to add to my TBR list!


I prefer to use the term fat rather than a euphemism like “plus size” or “curvy” because “fat” should be no more an offensive term than “thin” is. The word “fat” merely describes bodies. (The bodies of most of the American population, in fact!) It is a morally neutral adjective and I treat it as such on this blog, since I myself am a fat person who cares deeply about destigmatizing fatness. Just thought I’d share my rationale in case the term bothers some of my readers!

Friday Bookbag (plus a personal story), 2.8.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

But first, story time: As some of you may know, I had a pretty major surgery yesterday. (A total hysterectomy, in order to treat my endometriosis and related pain.) I’m happy to say that the surgery was a major success. I’m extremely emotional about it, because even though the post-surgery pain is not fun and I’m too weak to sit up without help right now, I actually feel better after surgery than I did before. I literally felt better as soon as I woke up. It’s incredible.

I’ve been suffering with this condition for years and had pretty much lost hope I’d ever get relief. I still have a long recovery ahead and there’s a strong possibility I will continue to deal with some endometriosis pain in addition to my everyday fibromyalgia pain, but both conditions should be much improved now. (The endometriosis was triggering fibromyalgia flares and vice versa. That should no longer be the case.) I’m praying that this hysterectomy closes the book on the worst pain and illness I’ve ever experienced in my life. My doctors are hopeful it will, so I’m hopeful, too.

Here’s to more reading, writing, and blogging in the future. And PSA: if you’re suffering debilitating menstrual pain, I implore you to take that shit seriously. It’s not normal to be vomiting with pain during periods. It’s not normal to be laid up for 2-3 (or 4-5) weeks out of every month because of your periods. It’s not normal to be too weak to eat or walk or think or take the bus by yourself because of your periods. Please take your pain seriously and fight for the care you deserve. I’m so glad I did.

/end story time. Now, back to the books! This week I’m featuring three exciting reads by Black women authors: two new ones I bought recently, plus an old favorite that’s just gone on deep sale. Happy Black History Month!


How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories by N.K. Jemisin

How Long Til Black Future Month Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

why I’m excited:I’ve been dying to read N.K. Jemisin’s critically acclaimed work for years, but the timing’s never seemed to work out. I’ve also been dying to read more sci-fi short stories, especially with recent work like “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse knocking my socks off.

It’s like N.K. Jemisin read my mind and combined my sci-fi wishes into one awesome package in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. Every single story mentioned in that Goodreads summary sounds fascinating to me. That cover is gorgeous. And during a Black History Month that’s already been pretty miserable for Black Americans, I love the idea of immersing myself in a Black Future Month instead.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

why I’m excited: You all already know how much I love the books that bridge the gap between YA and adult fiction. The Mothers looks like it will do that, and be tremendously complex and interesting to boot. I love that it seems to take teens’ issues seriously. I’m genuinely excited to see a love triangle between a “beauty,” “pastor’s son,” and “former football star” in a critically acclaimed literary fiction novel. Yessss! I think the current array of typical literary fiction protagonists is incredibly limited, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with Bennett’s characters in contrast. Also, teen pregnancies are so often flattened into metaphors or deuses-ex-machina, but I trust The Mothers will do much better. (Its gush of positive reviews seems to suggest that, anyway.)

Also-also, that cover is gorgeous. I want it on a poster on my wall.

Bonus Round:

9780544786769

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe is currently on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, it’s available to read for free through that service, too.)

I reviewed This Is Just My Face last year and really loved it. Reading Sidibe’s memoir is like going to the coolest, funniest, realest sleepover of your life. She writes in a conversational, down-to-earth, self-deprecating (but also self-loving) style that’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a typical celebrity memoir. She’s lived a genuinely interesting life full of interesting stories (like her parents’ green card marriage, her summer stuck in Senegal with her brother, and her time as a phone sex operator and how it prepared her for acting).

You might know Sidibe best from the movie Precious or the shows Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, but I actually love her presence as a writer and social media personality the best. If you haven’t read it already, This Is Just My Face is definitely worth picking up during this sale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


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The Girls by Emma Cline

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  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

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 kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!