By: Allyson Vaughan
The premise of Emma Cline’s The Girls is tantalizing: Summertime, 1960s Northern California sets the stage. Evie Boyd is young, malleable, and should be beaming with youth and joy. But Evie is frustrated with the quiet, privileged, suburban existence she is burdened with. No longer able to connect with her best friend, her emotionally stunted mother, and her absent father, Evie is stripped of any connection to the world. Like many young girls, she feels abandoned and emotionally neglected. Evie is trapped between the innocence of adolescence and the discovery of a more complex, frightening era of adulthood. Cline structures her protagonist to be in a stage of life where girls are most vulnerable as they take the shape of the woman they will become. It’s the most dangerous time of life for a young girl. Change permitted the air of the late 60s, and Evie is living and changing with them. Evie is drawn to Suzanne and a group of girls who embody the free range spirit that would continue to spread through the youth of the 1970s; long hair, bare skin, and free hearts. Suzanne is part of something, and that is part of the appeal Evie finds in both Suzanne and the community she is a part of. And so Evie is pulled into a strange new world when Suzanne introduces her to Russell and the community/ranch they live in. But Russell’s control over the girls, their vulnerabilities a currency he exchanges for power and control, push Evie to reckon with her choices and the other’s.
It’s no spoiler to say that Cline bases Russell and the infamous Girls on the occurrences with Charles Manson and the Helter Skelter mentality that his followers shared. The famous murder of Sharon Tate and several others in which his followers wrote “PIG ” in blood on the wall are plainly Cine’s inspiration for the plot and direction of the book. But by telling the story partly from young Evie’s perspective, who is drawn into Russell’s control, and the adult Evie who can look back on what happened, keeps the gruesome nature of the story in perspective. It prevents what would be an almost perverse sympathy with the girls, while still allowing for empathy. The reader begins to understand how Russel preys on the girls, so fractured in their logic and unfinished in their growth, and feels for Evie as she teeters between their world and the one she knows. But as the novel progresses, adult Evie is able to keep the reader rooted in the idea that there were consequences to her choices, their choices, and keeps the reader from romanticizing the ranch as she once did. And Cline’s structure works well to echo the impact of the time period without letting it become a plainly historical novel. Adult Evie’s isolation and borderline nostalgia mirrors how the 1960s were a tattoo on America’s future youth’s minds (it has impacted more plainly viewable today than any other time). The free and independent spirit of the late 60s and early 70s lingers now even in the 21st Century, and yet it is also reminder of the chaos and violence involved in that time.
Cline masters the balance with her structure; keeping the novel grounded in its originality while taking inspiration from the Manson family murders. While at times it would’ve been nice to see more differentiation and for the story to become even more individualized, it still works. The emotionally charged, raw language draws the eye across the page even in the story’s slow moments. That being said, there are few slow moments as Cline keeps a steady pace that starts not too far from the action the reader is waiting for her to build to. In medias res has never been more utilized, however there are times that the characters fall short. Suzanne is enigmatic to Evie, an unknown tower of power and beauty, and yet we never understand quite where she comes from. Cline evokes this curiosity in the reader, and perhaps does not deliver in an effort to enforce the anonymity the girls who followed Manson were viewed with, just some dirty hippies, until they were infamous for murder; And then suddenly they were living demons. But Evie’s perspective on the publicity of the fictionalized girls shows that these women were constantly, by Russel (Manson) and later the public, viewed only through lenses designed by others. They were manipulated by a madman, and then the media. The title alone distances the reader from the personalities and identities of the girls. And even Evie, who lives among them, can’t get at them.
Cline’s novel is on the shorter side, but the complexity of the novel is well compacted. The late 1960s were marked by sex, violence, music, drugs, and love. And Cline delivers these elements in her characters and story. And even its weaknesses prove to be strengths. The Girls is one of the hottest reads of the summer, and rightly so. This novel offers something fresh and new; frightening because of the truth it tells about violence of female adolescence and the 1960s.