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 before it even reached shelves.
Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic – and like the heroine of her coming-of-age novel – a native of sun-kissed California. There the similarity ends, with The Girls set during the late sixties, with a story inspired by the lurid fascination with the Manson cult murders.
The story’s 14-year-old narrator is Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father lives 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.” Evie’s dour best friend dumps her for a new best friend, who throws a drink in Evie’s face.
Bored and crippled by insecurity, Evie’s the kind of girl whom cult leader Russell Hadrick (Cline’s Manson dupe) 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 beautiful teenage lieutenant Suzanne, whom Evie idolizes.
Most of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence, but Suzanne’s sly one – her past, motives and feelings about Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes less passive, acquiring coarser edges from Suzanne and co. as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.
It’s been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, another queasily authentic look at the horrors of being an ordinary, unpopular teenage girl.
Sections with the older, adult Evie aren’t as successful, perhaps where Cline struggles to write a character much older then herself. But The Girls is a bleak, woozy, sometimes overwritten debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives.