The Girls was one of the biggest, most hyped books of 2016. Debut author Emma Cline’s manuscript sparked a bidding war and was optioned by a powerful Hollywood producer long before it even reached shelves.
Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic – and like the heroine of her novel – grew up in sun-kissed California. This coming-of-age however is set during the late sixties, and is (rather luridly) inspired by the infamous Manson cult and their brutal murders.
The story is seen through the eyes of 14-year-old outsider Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father lives with his young girlfriend in another town, and 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.
Bored and crippled by insecurity, Evie’s the kind of girl whom Russell Hadrick preys on. He’s teaching his followers about a “new kind of society”, 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 pull for Evie.
Some of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence, but Suzanne’s a sly one – her past, motives and feelings for Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes less passive, and acquires coarser edges from Suzanne and co. as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.
I can see why it’s been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, another queasily authentic look at the horrors of being a rather unattractive and unpopular teenage girl. But the section with an older Evie isn’t so successful – Cline struggling to write a character much older then herself.
It would be a bleak and woozy debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives without the cult-murder backdrop. It just wouldn’t have been so hyped.