Inspired by the Manson Family murders of 1969, Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls (2016) is charged with the imminent threat of violent tragedy. “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive, the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air.” Because the story is based on familiar, not to mention legendary, events you feel that you know what is about to happen. Yet, because the names and places are changed, the story unfolds in a parallel universe in which the unexpected is possible. When will the mayhem erupt and how?
As we look at the world through the eyes of Evie Boyd, a mere fourteen years old, we see a town and a life of small horizons where navigating the heightened dramas of being a teenager is enough to fill entire summers. However, what begins as a coming-of-age story about a girl’s uneasy transition into young womanhood, which is complicated by her parents’ marriage dissolving, turns into a harrowing tale of teenage rebellion.
According to Cline, the motivation for The Girls was wanting to understand the forces that drove the very young women who followed Charles Manson to do so with such wild and murderous abandon. What Cline discovered was that, in Evie’s case, her gravitation to what were no more than vagrants squatting at a nearby farm had less to do with the charms of “Russell” and more to do with “Suzanne,” with whom Evie becomes immediately drawn to like a moth to a flame. As for Suzanne, her feelings for Evie seemed feigned at best, manipulative at worst, which often leaves Evie confused and longing for validation. Meanwhile, Evie’s normal world of parents, friends, and high school becomes ever more ridiculous in her eyes. Only when she is with Russell, his right-hand man Guy, Suzanne and the other girls, Donna, Roos, Helen, does she feel like she has a place.
As her emotional dependence on Suzanne grows will Evie be compelled to partake in the heinous acts that you know are forthcoming? At one level, The Girls is a compelling thriller in which you anticipate with each chapter that the plot to kill will emerge at any moment. What will Evie do? Will Suzanne betray her? At another level, the book is about the lives of girls and women who pin their self-worth on the fate of a megalomaniac, Russell, whose scraggly bell-bottom aphorisms belie an insanely, not to mention violently, bitter heart. At still another level, which reveals more about me than about Cline’s novel, The Girls is about the inherent destructiveness of an American society that places more value on normality and materialism than on accepting ourselves and each other for all our imperfections. For when we do not know what to do with our outcasts, then those outcasts grow to embody the unstable resentment that lies in the heart of our communities, waiting to either change the world or explode with devastation.
In the end, I was completely enthralled with Emma Cline’s writing. Every sentence was a carefully crafted image. Every paragraph a revelation. Every chapter a gospel of godless truth. Cline does not judge her characters, she reveals them. Nor does Cline ask us to pity Evie, yet we feel her loneliness, naivety, moral core, and foolishness. In the end, if The Girls is a coming-of-age story it is about how we all must grow to realize that the world is unpredictable, where people and the force of the times in which we live may topple our certainty in an instant.