Forget “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” — they’re old news. The summer of 2016 belongs to a new set of fictional girls full of turmoil, dark secrets and regret.
But how to tell these new “Girls” apart? How to decide which one to read first? Here’s your guide.
“The Girls,” Emma Cline: Set in the late 1960s, Cline’s novel about a teenager’s fascination with and immersion in a California cult — think Manson family — is the most high-profile book of the bunch. The novel, still riding the bestseller list, comes with great buzz, for good reason: It’s well written and thought provoking, especially Cline’s disturbing insights into the cultural demands that drive young women to desperately seek approval from unworthy, even dangerous, sources. Her protagonist, Evie, lonely and feeling abandoned by her parents and friends, becomes obsessed with the older Suzanne, who draws the innocent Evie into a shabby but welcoming group where drugs and sex are greeted with a shrug. The group, mostly female, is led by the mysterious Russell, a Manson clone who first appears barefoot, wearing a “buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and as soft as velvet.” Told alternately in flashback by the young Evie and her older, wiser, middle-aged self, “The Girls” ultimately feels a bit anticlimactic — Cline doesn’t drop hints about where the story is going, she drops boulders. But its haunting message about the vulnerability of young women resonates.
“Girls on Fire,” Robin Wasserman: Known for her young adult novels, Wasserman tries her hand at adult fiction with excellent results in this intense, relentless story of two teenagers who become friends during a panic over satanism in the early 1990s (remember when that was a thing?). Hannah and Lacey are different sorts of outcasts — Hannah is quiet and impressionable, an easy target, while Lacey is wild and unpredictable, prone to wearing Doc Martens and obsessed with Kurt Cobain. When a popular girl plays a nasty prank on Hannah, Lacey comes to her rescue, and Hannah is quickly swept into her spell. As their Pennsylvania town reels in the wake of a basketball star’s suicide in the woods on Halloween, their friendship grows more fervent, not sexual but unsettling in its potency. Are dark forces at work? Or is there something Lacey isn’t telling Hannah? As Lacey slowly reveals her secrets, Hannah finds herself rebelling against the good girl she once was, and “Girls on Fire” drives to its savage, surprising and unnerving conclusion.
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“The Girls in the Garden,” Lisa Jewell: The communal garden square in Jewell’s novel is a small piece of paradise set apart from the rest of busy urban London, the sort of place every city dweller wants to live. The community is full of friendly families whose kids roam the park freely at night while their parents swill wine at impromptu gatherings. But one night after a community party, a 13-year-old girl is attacked and found unconscious in the rose garden, and suspicion and fear replace the veneer of boisterous generosity. Jewell’s characters are surprisingly cavalier about a similar attack on a teenage girl that took place a generation earlier, which feels unrealistic, and she doesn’t seem to know how to resolve one sideplot (about a father shipped off to a mental institution for setting fire to his house before the story begins). But though the novel lacks the intensity of “Girls on Fire,” Jewell sets a swift pace to accompany her irresistible premise and draws you in anyway.
“The Lost Girls,” Heather Young: Young’s suspenseful first novel uses a dual narrative to link the story of a child’s long-ago disappearance to a modern-day examination of loyalty and sacrifice and how the past makes its marks on the present. In 1935, 6-year-old Emily Evans vanishes one morning from her family’s vacation house on a Minnesota lake and is never found. More than 60 years later, Emily’s sister Lucy dies, leaving the remote, dilapidated house — and a diary about the events leading to her little sister’s disappearance — to her great-niece Justine. But Justine has her own troubles: She has just fled from her manipulative boyfriend, dragging her own unhappy daughters across the country without telling him. As both stories unfold, Young juggles each narrative skillfully, noting the terrible ways in which secrets and evasions shape our lives — and how even when it seems unlikely, redemption is always possible.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.