On the outside, The Girls by Emma Cline is a fast-paced, nostalgic novel loosely based on the Manson family. And it is all those things, but there’s more here than meets the eye. It explores the messed up ways girls crave affection, attention, and someone to devote themselves to. It’s a literary novel about women and violence: the violence acted against them and the violence they are capable of enacting themselves. The violence of jealousy, desire, and faith.
The main character, Evie Boyd, is an awkward, lonely 14 year old in the late 1960s, and a lonely middle aged woman in the present day, reminiscing about her strange coming-of-age. Evie is a constant observer, and she never feels like she fits in. She craves affection from boys who don’t reciprocate. She is, basically, perfect cult fodder. One day she sees a group of effortless, ethereal older girls in a park, and she wants so badly to be one of them. The leader of the girls, Suzanne, enchants Evie the most, and that enchantment continues darkly as the plot of the novel takes off.
In the ride to bring Evie to meet Russell, the cult leader, the girls wax poetic about him. “He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.” But the hero worship doesn’t go very far, because Evie is the observer, and you get the sense that she doesn’t buy into Russell’s greatness. She hangs around, simply, for the girls; specifically, for Suzanne. All we know about Russell is that for some reason the girls love him, he wants a record deal, and he has a slight temper.
It never feels like a true crime story. The best parts were the scenes where present-day Evie is looking back on the past. She still looks at teenage girls with a sense of fractured awe. She is an observer to the end, still on the outskirts. We are lead to wonder what responsibility those on the outskirts of evil have to stop it.
The Girls will get a lot of press because it’s a fictionalization of the Manson murders, but it may be wrongly advertised. It’s a slow-burn of a novel, and beautifully written. It examines the way women are manipulated, and in the same sentences exposes how women can be just as destructive and evil as the men who control them. If you like lush language and you’re interested in literary fiction about teenage girls, you will find something valuable here.
The Girls is out June 14th. Thank you Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy to review.