In her moving and disturbingly nostalgic novel The Girls, Emma Cline delves into the psychology of a young teen embroiled with a cult in the 1970s. Intrigued? Yeah, me neither. At first, at least. I read a bit of an interview with Cline about the book right as it was about to be released and thought, “I can do without.”
You see, I think cults are interesting as a sort of enclosed social ecosphere. I think true crime novels are interesting as an idea because I, like many people, have that draw toward seeing what happened in grisly circumstances (craning my head toward the accident on the road, hoping not to see anything and yet desperately hoping to see something which will prove to me everyone is okay). But I’ve never been particularly interested in reading about either. I’d really rather read fictional crime and, well, I guess I missed the part of my teenage rebellion where I read Helter Skelter and got obsessed with Charles Manson. I just kept hearing people talk about this book and so I finally picked it up despite my disinterest to the topic (yeah, I know, that’s my personal taste. I know people who would jump on a book I describe like this!) and it’s genuinely worthwhile.
This book is fictional, but it’s very clearly a retelling of the murders committed by the cult surrounding Charles Manson. Set in California in the 1970s, young Evie begins to drift apart from her best (and only) friend after her parents get a divorce. It’s summer, and Evie is off to boarding school in the fall. She’s placeless and adrift throughout her hometown, until she sees some girls at a park whom she immediately envies. One of them in particular catches her attention—Suzanne, the ringleader of sorts. Repeated accidental encounters with Suzanne finally culminate in Evie going back to the ranch where she meets Russell, the magnetic leader of the cult.
Evie spends more and more time on the ranch, mainly because of her attraction to (and also conflicting wish to be) Suzanne. The stakes keep increasing until the night that Suzanne leads a group to the house of a famous man perceived to have let Russell down and the group murders the people at home.
Oh, did you feel like I just spoiled something for you? I didn’t. Even if this weren’t so clearly taken from the Manson killings, the book lays most of it out pretty quickly. It’s primarily narrated by Evie the middle-aged woman, who is just as adrift as Evie the teenager. She’s staying at a friend’s house between long-term in-home care positions when the friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend stop by for a night. He knows about Evie’s past (he himself is both slightly psychotic and involved in the drug business—though the two are unrelated) and delights in bringing it up.
So from the get-go, we know that Evie was involved in a cult that murdered people but that she’s not in prison and doesn’t seem to have ever been. Where do we go from here? Back to the beginning, then seesawing back and forth between young Evie and older Evie. It’s all about discovering why she was involved, how she was involved—was she just lucky that she evaded arrest because she was involved in murdering people or did she split away from the group by then?—who did what, and why.
This book is beautifully written. It’s actually quite disturbing how it’s written—older Evie’s narration is terse, short. It’s matter-of-fact. Younger Evie’s narration is descriptively…nostalgic? Wait. There’s something wrong here. Older Evie is nostalgic for the time she spent as a member of a cult that murdered people. Okay…
It’s great. Really, though. I was disturbed, at first, but as the book developed and unfolded, I started to think that I could understand why that decision may have been perfectly appropriate. You see, Evie’s not exactly having a great life. She’s lonely and unemployed, broke after growing up fairly wealthy, and she has no family or lover in her life. She doesn’t know what she’s doing next—just saying she’ll figure it out/something will happen—and she doesn’t really have any enthusiasm for what she’s doing now.
So she’s disturbingly nostalgic about having been in a murderous cult. Well, that was the last time she was really free, the last time she belonged without these reservations. She was part of a family, accepted by choice into a group of people she admired. Despite her family’s wealth as she grew up, her parents are divorced and indifferent to her and she has no one to spend time with, while this group of people on a ranch have no money but they share everything.
Literally, everything. Her first time on the ranch, when she hardly knows anyone and has made no commitments, the adult Russell makes fourteen-year-old Evie give him a blowjob. Later in the summer, he sends her with Suzanne as an offering to another man.
She’s not nostalgic about the sex. It’s the girls (oh, so that’s why it’s called the girls, readers think about once every ten pages) who she misses and who really made her fit in. That first scene of Suzanne is at first envious—Suzanne and the girls she is with make Evie jealous, because of how happy they are, how little they care about what anyone else thinks, and how, even so, everyone is looking at them—and then sexually mischievous—Suzanne flashes her nipple to the world, the sight remaining in Evie’s eyes after it’s gone. Evie is friends with all the girls (sometimes reluctantly so, she doesn’t always have nice memories about them) but she adores Suzanne.
She needs Suzanne’s attention constantly, forming her life and her habits around getting and keeping the older girl’s attention. They live in a sort of free-love place, but really it just means all the girls have to have sex with Russell when called upon and with no one else unless instructed. The two girls, though, are constantly touching, and have a sexual experience in which a man must mediate between them though they are ultimately interested only in each other.
Well, no wonder Evie is so miserable in the future. The only person to whom she’s ever really displayed attraction (other than brief and desperate interest in accessible boys who compliment her) is Suzanne. Older Evie doesn’t really talk about her sexuality. So while this book is in many ways a young girl’s sexual coming of age, her sexual awakening and exploration, it’s also unfulfilled. She gets to a point where she could move beyond and into some awareness, but instead she stalls and maybe never moves past it. Who could blame her? Her sexual experiences with men are all enforced and indifferent but when she gets involved with a woman, not only is the woman forbidden to her but she also is a member of a murderous cult.
The book is good. It’s engrossing and interesting. It took me from a place where I was relatively unconcerned with the topic to a sort of lethargic but consistent page-turning (because the nostalgia of the novel, while engrossing, doesn’t lead to rapid reading). It’s not an anthem of youthful rebellion or an exploration of criminal psychology but a story of a girl who just wants to find her place in the world when she feels rejected and abandoned.
The plot is unimportant and slow-moving, because this book is really about Evie’s introspection: her recollections of the girls, her memories of herself, and her realizations of who she is now—or lack of. She makes vast generalizations about girls her age at the time, but they seem fulfilled in Sasha, the teenager adult Evie meets who has a vibrant personality when alone with Evie but can’t seem to catch any attention when with her boyfriend.
Really, girls aren’t portrayed well in this novel. They’re easily manipulated, desperate to gain male approval even if that means they’ll be controlled by men, and surprisingly vicious. Moments of comically juvenile female power plays contrast the larger issue of murder. Motherhood is lackadaisical. The girl who might possibly be a lesbian can’t ever quite figure it out. Don’t get me wrong, men aren’t portrayed well, either. I mean, in addition to Russell and everything going on with him, almost every male figure wants something sexually from fourteen-year-old Evie. So basically, everyone sucks.
Cline does well as she gets into the mind of a young girl desperate to fit in. The writing is lyrical and beautiful and so evocative of moments from Evie’s life. This book is only marginally plot-driven and has issues of representation and is incredibly unsatisfactory (I don’t mean that as an insult! It’s just how I see what happens in it). It’s good, and I’m glad to have read it. If you’re a fan of lyrical writing, this book is great. I don’t think, though, that it left me with anything fundamental or lingering. I doubt I’ll feel called upon to read it again, and it’s not going to be my first or second recommendation to anyone who asks me what to read next (unless, of course, it’s that one person who’s both obsessed with literary writing and Charles Manson…).