The Girls was one of the biggest, most hyped literary hits of 2016. Debut author Emma Cline’s manuscript had sparked a bidding war and was optioned by a powerful Hollywood producer before it sold, let alone reached shelves.
Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic, and like the heroine of her novel, grew up in sun-kissed California. Her coming-of-age tale is set during the late sixties, and, rather sensationally, is based loosely on the infamous Manson cult and their brutal murders.
Cline’s Manson-like group is seen through the eyes of 14-year-old outsider Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father is living with his young girlfriend in another town, while Evie’s mother is busy dating and following every New Age trend going.
Evie studies the studio portrait of her late maternal grandmother, a famous, beautiful actress. “The realization was bracing” she thinks, “we looked nothing alike.” Poor Evie has a dour best friend who finds a new best friend, who then throws a drink in Evie’s face.
Crippled with insecurity and at a loose end, Evie’s the kind of girl Russell Hadrick preys on. He’s teaching his followers about a “new kind of society”, one that’s “free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy.” Only it’s not Russell, but his teenage lieutenant Suzanne, who holds a dark glamour for the immature Evie.
Some of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence; Suzanne’s a sly one, both her past and her motives and feelings regarding Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes a little less passive, acquiring coarser edges from Suzanne and the others as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.
There’s a second, sad thread in the novel with middle-aged Evie – still a tragic, weak figure. We know, from that Evie, that she wasn’t there for the murders, and she considers whether she – deeply average Evie – could have killed. But she wasn’t under Russell/Manson’s sway, and Cline doesn’t explore factors behind the Manson murders – Helter Skelter etc.
The 1969 Manson slayings still hold lurid fascination, and perhaps The Girls wouldn’t have been so hyped if not for Manson’s hole in pop culture.
The novel has been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, which was also a queasily authentic look at the horrors of being a teenage girl, although featuring much lower stakes teenage misery. The Girls could have been a bleak and weirdly woozy debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives even without the cult-murder backdrop.
I’m just glad I finally crossed it off the reading list.