Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings

by dhaaruni

I guess I think a lot about girlhood and portrayals of it. Currently, I’m en route to India to see the family, and I just finished Emma Cline’s The Girls and Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and I have a lot to say about them both and not all of it is good. I feel a lot about the state of young girlhood because I’m finally, finally growing up past it and at the same time, I’m a little hesitant to critique any aspect of it because I don’t want to take away from what girls enjoy and take pride and joy in. It’s a thin line between critiquing something in a misogynistic manner and coming across a truly misogynistic piece of media and in these two books, I found myself exploring that line.

The Girls was honestly underwhelming. I was reading it on the plane and my mother was reading over my shoulder and we had the same reaction: “Why is this book so celebrated?” In particular, there’s this scene involving two underage girls having a threesome with a middle aged man and I literally couldn’t stomach reading that scene and I’m not somebody who regards herself as squeamish. That being said, the prose was absolutely lovely and it pains me to criticize it in such a manner because I truly believe that Emma Cline is capable of writing something much more original and much less sensational. She writes about love better than she writes about sex in my opinion or rather writes about the absence of love in people’s lives.

“The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like “sunset” and “Paris.” Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

But as for the rest of it, I’m so tired of reading about sex and drugs to be blunt about it. I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all, I’ve had sex, I’ve done drugs, and it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world either. I’m not looking back on my days of rebellion with a dewy eye of “what could have been” but then again, I didn’t almost commit heinous acts of murder.

I got to thinking about why the book is being so celebrated among literary circles. I think it’s partially the prose itself is absolutely glorious that it’s easy to forget the plot is well, forgettable. There’s the wannabe stepfather and the rebellious teenage daughter and the well meaning but disgustingly oblivious mother and for what? There’s not a single person in the book I feel remotely positive towards and that includes Evie herself and I’m not one to disdain unlikable protagonists. She is unlikable in a pathetic way which well, isn’t appealing whatsoever when I look back on it, and I literally couldn’t stop myself from blaming her for the events that occurred although I know I’m fully wrong in doing so. Perhaps it’s my own biases that prevent me from truly empathizing with Evie, perhaps it’s that we aren’t intended to empathize with her as a rule. I just became increasingly angry with her that she still looked back on her days with Suzanne and Russell and the rest of them with almost a dewy eyed mentality and that fundamentally frustrated me. Then again, the end of the novel was a dead giveaway (no pun intended) so the suspense was almost nonexistent.

What personally most interested me about the book was the idea of sex as kind of this gross entity to be done solely for the sake of men. I mean, I never got the impression that Evie or really any of the girls in the book ever wanted to engage in any sexual activity except perhaps with each other and yet, it was a commonplace occurrence in their lives. The quote “All the books made it sound like the men forced the girls into it” is well and good, but the whole novel came across to me as if the girls really were forced into sex and I don’t know what to really believe. Is Evie an unreliable narrator unable to see when she’s really being taken advantage of? Or is sex to girls really just something to be done? Personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former but at the same time, I can’t shake the impression that it’s truly the latter and I’m just fooling myself.

Megan Abbot on the other hand, makes me believe in the concept of real adult novels about children, if that makes sense. I read the entirety of You Will Know Me in one sitting on an airplane and I well, I liked it. I mean like, liking a book to me is slightly an ambiguous concept because it’s impossible to say what you really like or dislike about it in such a simplistic statement. I found this particular novel far more predictable than her other works but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. It was far better organized and plotted than The Fever although I think that both it and Dare Me were stronger novels in some way, in terms of how compelling they were. But, You Will Know Me had its charm. There were notable turns of phrase and it reminded me of a Jodi Picoult novel in the best of ways, the artistic decision to write the book from Katie’s perspective and the focus on adult politics when the subject or rather the object, Devon, is a young girl. I found the focus on family interesting because I’m very close to my family but I’d like to think we’re not nearly as toxic as the families explored in the novel. I am slightly proud to say that my parents value me too much to allow me to focus so wholeheartedly on something no matter how much I may love it.

And, while reading this book, I got to thinking about the sexualization of female gymnastics as well when I was reading this book and I don’t know, it fundamentally frustrates me. These are little girls whose bodies are being focused on to an almost extreme level and there’s literally no excuse for the way that people talk about them, the way that even their own parents discuss the girls and the progression of their lives. Their bodies don’t belong to them anymore, they’re a collection of limbs and muscles and skin and bone, glitter and sinew and satin leotards, and well, there’s a reason women’s gymnastics is one of the most watched sports in the Summer Olympics. But I think that I should refrain from commenting on it in detail because I am not part of the inner circle of competitive sports and I don’t and will never know the true details of it.

The only real criticism of the novel that I have is that the characters weren’t nearly as fleshed out as in Abbott’s other novels and it hurt the book in some ways. It was less scandalous, less dramatic, less “OMG” and I strangely enough could predict the twists long before they occurred. Perhaps I’ve read too much fiction, maybe I just know too much about the world as I see it for anything to truly be a surprise to me so I’m possibly biased. Katie in particular was very much a Jodi Picoult protagonist and again I say, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Thankfully there was no dramatic legal trail with background romance to distract form the main plot because I honestly don’t think I could have dealt with that. In particular, Dovon herself served as more of a symbol of a prodigy, of perfection, of something to be strived for and simultaneously feared rather than a character in herself. Even with regards to her relationship with Ryan, it didn’t feel as the sheer tragedy of the affair was about her, a teenage girl involved with a grown ass man but about how everybody else around her was affected by it. Although, perhaps that’s the point that Abbott was trying to make in including it.

I call this piece “Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings” because both these books encompass that part of adolescence we don’t really like to talk about. As I said, I think The Girls is a bit of overkill and overemphasis on the scandal element of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it covers embarrassing, disgusting aspects of youth that nobody likes to consider even when looking back at their own lives. Everything is sort of vague and I think that is ironic given that You Will Know Me is about competitive gymnastics, which is such a precise sport. It reminded me of Abbott’s The End of Everything rather than The Fever or Dare Me, and I think it was all the stronger for it although as I pointed out, it does have its drawbacks. It has more of a crossover appeal, to adults as well as teenage girls and it didn’t hurt to read in the way I think it was supposed to. But again, I’m not a typical reader which I suppose is why you’re reading this blog in the first place.