Emma Cline’s Daddy is a compilation of stunning short stories with one common link—the men in the stories are fathers, father figures, or symbolic fathers. Many are nefarious, brooding, or self-absorbed. All of them are beneficiaries of patriarchy, even the seemingly winsome main character Ben in the story “Mack the Knife.” Cline is a deft storyteller and like her bestselling debut novel The Girls, the characters portrayed in the stories convey complicated inner lives. Most of the stories are told through the lens of women characters; however, it is the men who act inappropriately in unwanted touches, glances, or dominant authority.
While Cline serves up characters that are beneficiaries of patriarchy, it seems a concerted decision to title the book Daddy. In addition to the innocence of a little girl calling her father, “daddy,” a second meaning has been attached to the term. In these stories, there are daddies who purchase women’s underwear, make inappropriate sexual advances, and leer at young adolescent girls. Oh, these men are not really fathers or putative fathers, but daddies in the sexualized sense of the term.
I read a few reviews of this book that seem to suggest Cline is good at telling a dark story. Curiously, I didn’t read the stories as dark tales. Men often behave badly.
I recall once observing a guy I had dated very briefly, before meeting my husband, yelling abusively at his girlfriend or wife in the local Target store. He seemed to be lording over her for God only knows the reason. The same guy did not behave this way toward me in the short few months we dated. And that is what it seems Cline seems to be suggesting in the collection of stories. Bad behavior comes in many different manifestations.
Cline, herself, has had to contend with men behaving badly. In 2017, her ex-boyfriend accused her of plagiarizing from his unpublished manuscript and integrating the said content into her bestseller, The Girls. Nevermind that the said ex-boyfriend who had been using one of Cline’s old laptops, downloaded private images of her in an attempt to murky the plagiarism accusation by slut shaming her. Or, that he was represented by David Boies, the same lawyer who represented Harvey Weinstein. It all seems sort of surreal. Some of the stories in this collection were written years before the publication of The Girls and the scandal Cline found herself embroiled in. It is just the kind of power that the said ex-boyfriend wielded against her that underpin the collection of stories.
Men behave badly, yet sometimes women are culpable in those actions. In “Los Angeles” the main character Alice has recently relocated to Los Angeles working in an unnamed (though reminiscent of American Apparel) clothing boutique where she meets a free-spirited coworker, a wealthy high schooler named Oona. Quickly, Oona lets Alice in on an easy, secret money-making endeavor selling strangers her underwear. The extent to which Alice will go to make an extra buck proves nearly to be her undoing. A middle-aged man lures Alice to his car for the transaction. In full panic mode, Alice scarcely escapes the predicament but also reflects on the situation as a badge of honor to share later with Oona. Selling strangers your underwear or photos of your feet is becoming a 21st century money maker for some. While Alice in “Los Angeles” almost runs aground because she flouted the cardinal rule of conducting business transactions in public places, women can, and do, make money this way.
Other stories such as “What Can I Do With A General” or “The Nanny”; however, the best story of the collection is “Marion,” which seemed slightly reminiscent of The Girls. In “General” a family of three sisters returns to the family home for Christmas holidays. The stern nature of the father reflects the kind of upbringing that seemed to involve abuse as at least one of the sisters flinches when in proximity to her dad. The father in this story is domineering to his daughters (and one presumes also his wife) and seems to lack an emotional compass. Even the invalid family dog is begrudged by the father figure.
In “The Nanny” a twenty-something young woman is fleeing from the ruins of a sexual relationship with the father of a famous celebrity couple. Kayla, the main character, and Rafe, the celebrity, got caught and the paparazzi wound up plastering Kayla’s photo all over the press. As with other stories, Cline does not allow the woman to take solitary blame for the splintered marriage. While at the same time, the characters are written with complexity and ambiguity. Sadly, despite all the wreckage, Kayla still patiently hopes Rafe will reach out to her but it is a desire that never materializes. The subtext of these actions is the way in which a young girl has been manipulated and then slut shamed as a “homewrecker.” But it is perspective that makes the stories more complex. Cline reflects the story from Kayla’s vantage point as she holes up in a family friend’s home to avoid the paparazzi instead of revealing the dynamics of power in this relationship to the reader.
The story I enjoyed the most was “Marion,” which had the hallmarks of The Girls. The story centers on Marion, a 13-year old adolescent who lives on a commune-like ranch with her mom, her mom’s boyfriend, and several other adults. Marion’s best friend is a mainstay at the ranch as well and the two spend lazy days watching the men working in the barn, picking vegetables in the garden, or romping the countryside. Marion appears to enjoy attention garnered from the men but her best friend feels ill at ease by their gaze. Marion hopes to draw the attention of one of her stepfather’s best friends by luring him with a naked photo of her and a lock of hair. The echoes of The Girls reverberate as one scene involves the two girls finding graphic photos of grisly dead bodies and bloodied sheets. Yet, that remains tangential to Marion’s budding sexuality. Beneath the surface, it seems that something bad is imminent. Like her other stories, Cline gives Marion agency in this story. Yet that does not mean that she is not a victim of predatory adult men. And like the rest of the stories, Cline demonstrates the power wielded by whether emotional, physical, or sexual.
By Emma Cline
288 pages. 2020.