Hellooo, everybody! Summer is rapidly coming to an end (did it ever even happen here in England?!) and the rain is pounding against my windows, so I thought it’d be a good time to review one of the books I read over the (slightly) warmer months…
The Girls is the debut novel by Emma Cline and it was surrounded by massive hype and intrigue upon its release last year. It’s fairly easy to see why, what with it being based on the disturbing and notorious Manson Family murders. Like the crimes of the deranged Manson and his followers, Cline’s story takes place in the summer of 1969, in the quiet, still suburbs of California. Our main character is fourteen year old Evie Boyd, on the precipice of sexuality and adolescent lust, desire and confusion. She’s desperate to be noticed; bored with her life and her divorced parents’, particularly her mother’s antics and attempts at reinvention, which both frustrate and elude her. The new boyfriends anger and alienate her, whilst simultaneously, her father has left the family home and is living with a much younger woman in a move that screams of a midlife crisis. Then there’s her best friend Connie, who can no longer satisfy her taste for adventure or even comfort. Their attempts at adult beauty routines, and their devotion to their supposed benefits, just don’t seem to have the same impact they once did, and Evie wants more. Connie’s older brother, who has been the focus of her pent up sexual urges, not to mention a few awkward almost-encounters, leaves town with his girlfriend, plummeting Evie into the depths of dullness. The long summer days stretch ahead of her, and then she sees them. The girls, with their hair “long and uncombed”, “their jewellery catching the sun” and Evie instantly knows that “they were different from everyone else”. Thus, her infatuation begins.
The beautiful thing about this novel is how exceptionally Cline captures those feelings of adolescent anxiety and yearning. It’s all too easy for Evie to be taken in by the girls, particularly their leader Suzanne, because they represent all she wants to be. They are alluring, intoxicating and free. They’re also like nobody else she has ever encountered, and to a young teenager, that desire for new experiences and to be part of something different, can be staggeringly powerful.
As Suzanne allows Evie to dip in and out of the cult, Evie experiences the ranch where they live and a concoction of characters; children and lost souls seeking something they probably can’t quite articulate. Cline’s Manson is a similarly egotistical and self indulgent man, Russell, who we experience more through the women that are enraptured by him than his presence being a dictating force in the novel. He sexually manipulates the girls in his cult and Evie is no exception. Cline perfectly captures that awkward desire to behave like an adult, whilst not being ready nor quite knowing how, and we experience Evie’s tense encounters as though we’re a concerned friend on the sidelines, unable to be heard. The atmospheric language allows the slow burning, yet all too impending, drama to build, whilst the brutal murders hang in the air and we wait to discover just how far Evie will go to be accepted by the girls. Her love and infatuation with Russell’s ranch contrasts the rest of his followers, because Evie followed the women, not the man, to be there. She notices Russell’s lacking musical talents, whilst other girls sit around the fire idolising him as he plucks inadequately at guitar strings. She notices his cruel treatment of his girls, slapping one of them across the face without warning, and is left feeling uncomfortable by it whilst others refuse to acknowledge the break in the supposedly idyllic lifestyle. Evie stays because of Suzanne and her strongest infatuation is most definitely with her, not the cult leader. This female fixation is raw and striking and brings the reality of being a teenage girl vividly to life.
The novel moves between the summer of 1969 and to Evie in the present day, where her life is decidedly flat and uninspiring. I wasn’t particularly keen on these passages and found them to be a little unnecessary. We’re introduced to another teenage girl, Sasha, who has echoes of a young Evie in her; that desire to please and to be seen as someone worthy of attention. Evie befriends her and watches, helplessly, as the young girl is manipulated and treated unfairly by her lacklustre boyfriend. It seems to serve as a reminder that girls’ behaviour in adolescence can often be the same, despite the decade, and that some girls can still, sadly, find themselves subject to the whims of the boys in their lives. Unfortunately, these passages just don’t carry the same momentum as the rest of the novel. The intrigue and power of Evie’s youth and summer at the ranch, whilst a massacre looms, is as intoxicating as the girls are themselves. The passages where Evie is a reflective adult provide some interest, as we’re able to see the long term psychological damage one summer can have on an individual, but at times, it felt a little trivial and I was eager for these parts to end.
As a whole, this novel is poetic, evocative and atmospheric. It beautifully captures the danger, mystery and intrigue of cults, plus the fascination we have with them. It explores female relationships with alarming realism and insight, creating characters that are both frightening and relatable. It also offers a distrurbing portrayal of the allure and power some people can hold over others – and just what that can make people do.
Have you read The Girls? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Thanks for reading, chums!