Over the weekend, I finished this month’s Book Club pick – The Girls by Emma Cline. Very loosely based on Manson’s girls, it has been getting mixed reviews. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect with this one. Charles Manson and his cult isn’t something I’ve ever been interested. My knowledge on the subject is so vague that it could be considered clueless. Basically, I know he was a crackpot that somehow convinced others to commit a heinous murder for him. I don’t even know anything about the murder, other than it was so bad it was national news. Fortunately for me, none of that factored into the reading of this book. If you haven’t heard about The Girls by Emma Cline, here’s what the inside cover has to say:
Girls – their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong – are at the heart of this stunning first novel by Emma Cline, and unforgettable new voice in the literary world.
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged – a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie dost not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor sharp precision and startling psychological insight. ‘The Girls’ is a brilliant work of fiction – and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.
Before I dive into my thoughts, I wanted to put out this disclaimer: The Girls is NOT a fictionalized retelling of the Manson Cult story. I think that’s why it’s reviews are hovering in the 3 Star area. Reading some of the comments after finishing the book, most of those negative ones were because of this fact. From what I gathered, people were expecting that and completely missed that this is a story about the mind of teenage girl – her insecurities, her desire to be loved and accepted – set in the tumultuous time of the late ’60s. It was those emotions that allowed her to be sucked into the cult. I suppose you could say they were expecting a soft drink and got juice instead.
Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They notice what we want noticed.
When the book starts, we’re introduced to Evie as a middle-aged woman. It quickly becomes apparent that she never really did figure out where she fit in the world. The general apathy for her existence is evident in her lack of close friends or relationships. We see the shell of a woman that just coasts from day to day, doing only what is needed to survive, scared of everything around her. If this were made into a film, I’d hazard to guess that the director would shoot the scenes with a blue, overcast tint. Evie’s recollections of that fateful summer are much more vibrant.
That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.
When we do meet 14 year old Evie, she’s a girl lost. Hazy though they may be, I still remember my early teen years and I could relate to Evie’s feelings of not fitting in anywhere. It felt like everything was a trap. There was no way you could win, no matter what you did. You were either too skinny or too fat, too slutty or too innocent, too shy or too bold. There was never a “perfect” guide post to try and emulate. Being yourself was definitely not an option either because you didn’t know who you were anyway. All I knew was that I wanted to be loved and accepted, and to me, attention equaled love. Especially from boys I had crushes on and others that I admired.
That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.
Throughout the book we see Evie struggle with her identity. She wants so bad to be seen as an adult. She wants to be loved. At 14, she wants that love and attention from the boys around her. Sadly, her teenage world view is severely limited and her lack of good role models depressing. This is shown through her utter disgust with her mom. Her parents are in the process of a divorce because her Dad had an affair and is leaving Evie’s mom for the other woman. Evie wholeheartedly blames her mother. Her father was just doing what men do, according to Evie. There’s a moment, during a dinner party, where Evie talks about her mother looking so drab and traditional among the flashier and newer styles of the time. It’s an excellent visual, in my opinion, of the push by society for women to stay relevant in order to keep their men’s attention. Evie feels pity for her mother and doesn’t understand why she didn’t work harder to keep her father, as if it was her mother’s duty to make sure her father didn’t stray. To Evie, it was so blatantly obvious what her mother should have done. Instead, like I’m sure she was taught as a young woman, Evie’s mom chooses to be silent and in some slight way, complicit in her husband’s infidelity.
There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts never begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline: an insistence that they noticed a strange quality to the sunlight that morning or excessive static in their sheets. A meaningless fight with a boyfriend. As if the presentment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before.
It’s not until Evie see this group of girls in a park, does she finally find some vision to latch on to, some standard for how she wants to be seen in the world. She’s frustrated by the social morays that have been handed down; her role in life cursed only because she had the misfortune of being born a girl. These girls are strong, independent, secure in who they are as women. They are the Goddesses and all men will tremble in their wake. Men are mere play things. Something to pass the time, not something to base your whole life around. These girls introduce Evie to the commune where they live. In a time of “Free Love”, drugs and sex and alcohol are in abundance. There are no rules. No standards. No possession or competition. Everyone is equal, and everyone is loved and accepted. To Evie, this is heaven. This is how she wants the world to be. How she wants to live her life.
That slap should have been more alarming. I wanted Russell to be kind, so he was. I wanted to be near Suzanne, so I believed the things that allowed me to stay there. I told myself there were things I didn’t understand. I recycled the words I’d heard Russell speak before, fashioned them into an explanation. Sometimes he had to punish us in order to show his love. He hadn’t wanted to do it, but he had to keep us moving forward, for the good of the group. It had hurt him, too.
It’s not until later that Evie sees a tear in the perfect facade of the commune. Like waking up slowly from a dream, she begins noticing small things that are incongruent with her vision of the place. A moment of violence, a lack of caring when someone is in danger, a disregard for personal boundaries. Like all teenagers, she tries to focus on the good and explain away the bad. All because she finally found a place to base her sense of self on and doesn’t want to see it disappear. Doesn’t want to see it become exactly like the world she left. Doesn’t want to be lost again. Doesn’t want to question herself because the world demands she second guess everything.
Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgements, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they’d ever had – the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern – had become inaudible. If those instincts had ever been detectable at all.
They didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.
It’s not until the very end of the book do we get any mention of the infamous murders. Again, from others that know more about this subject than I, only minor details were changed. However, since this is a book that uses that cult as more of a backdrop than a plot, the grim scenes are only glossed over. Really, I doubt more than a chapter or two was spent on them. The focus is on how Evie feels about the whole event. Her continued struggle to separate what is actual from what she wants those she’s come to love to be. Reconciling a child like, rose colored idea with the stark, harsh reality of adult life.
I thought that loving someone acted as a kind of protective measure, like they’d understand the scale and intensity of your feelings and act accordingly.
Ultimately, I thought it was a very good book and I would recommend it to those interested in delving into the psyche of a young girl. To me, the time period is irrelevant. What it means to be a female in America hasn’t changed all that much. Young girls are still taught that they need to be a certain way in order to be desirable. They are still taught that they should take the lead only when a man gives it to them. They are still conditioned to think that any misstep is their fault. You see it everywhere – Movies, News, Music, Advertisements. Yes, feminism has come a long way since the ’60s but we still see the societal push back (often by other women) because these ladies are “too much”. It’s a difficult reality to accept as a young, innocent, and head strong woman. We can either be liked and accepted by being complicit in our own social slavery or we can be ostracized and made fun of for being different. Focusing on this fact, is where Ms. Cline shines.
Hatred was easy. The permutations constant over the years: a stranger at a fair who palmed my crotch through my shorts. A man on the sidewalk who lunged at me, then laughed when I flinched. The night an older man took me to a fancy restaurant when I wasn’t even old enough to like oysters. Not yet twenty. The owner joined our table, and so did a famous filmmaker. The men fell into a heated discussion with no entry point for me: I fidgeted with my heavy cloth napkin, drank water. Staring at the wall. “Eat your vegetables,” the filmmaker suddenly snapped at me. “You’re a growing girl.” The filmmaker wanted me to know what I already knew: I had no real power. He saw my need and used it against me.
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on my Goodreads page. While I enjoyed it immensely, I think at times Ms. Cline tried too hard to prove she was a great writer. Her prose, while lovely, got to be a bit too much and occasionally took me out of the story.
***I’d also like to warn readers that this book does contain drug and alcohol use, what we now consider to be rape of a child, descriptions of sexual acts, and explicit language.***