Title: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline
Published by: Random House
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
This review was originally written for the Charlatan. An edited version was published on September 8, 2016, Volume 46, Issue 6.
It’s 1969 and fourteen-year old Evie Boyd’s life is not going so well. Her parents have divorced due to an affair, her father having recently moved in with his much younger secretary and her mother having recently started dating again. Her best friend is no longer talking to her and she’s recently had her heart broken. Alone and feeling misunderstood, Evie’s summer takes a dramatic turn with her encounter with a group of older girls at a local park and is soon drawn into a soon-to-be infamous cult.
Loosely inspired by the Manson Family, a commune lead by murder-conspirator Charles Manson in the late 1960s, The Girls is a violent, twisted and sexually charged coming of age novel about a young girl desperately trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t seem to want her. What makes The Girls a unique take on this story is how the plot revolves around Evie’s relationship with other female cult members rather than the cult’s charismatic male leader, Russell. When Evie first meets the girls, she’s drawn to their unattached, carefree attitudes of abandon, and quickly emotionally attaches to the group’s leader, Suzanne. Evie’s relationship with Suzanne is what shapes her involvement with the cult, balancing a thin line between love and approval. Their relationship is a tense yet relatable one, formed by Evie’s desperate need of adult approval and friendship, blurring the lines between crush, friendship and idolization.
What really stood out to me, was at how its heart The Girls is a novel about women and girls, following the lives of female cult members and their relationships with each other rather. Russell’s actions do play a large part in shaping the plot and the cult’s actions, but rather it’s Evie’s desperation for approval and validation from Suzanne that shapes her involvement. This isn’t the story about an older man luring young girls into his visions of psychotic utopian future, but rather, a story about that desperate fever of needing adult approval and friendship from an older girl and being willing to do anything to obtain it.
The Girls is told in multiple parts that move between Evie’s childhood and the present as a middle aged women reflecting on her past. Although the sections written from Evie’s perspective as an adult were well written, I found they often left more questions than answered. It was difficult to sympathize with Evie as an adult due to how many years were between the two time periods and my perception of her lack of direction and empathy after her involvement with the cult. I think The Girls could have been just as well written and even more concise if only old from Evie’s perspective as a teenager. The book is also rather slow to pick up in the beginning, leaving the reader to suffer through the mundane and irritating moments of Evie’s everyday life. The Girls really picks up at the end of the first section though, when Evie runs away from home and joins Suzanne and the girls at the ranch, the cult’s base of operations.
Overall, The Girls is a gripping novel of deceit, murder and desire that had me on the edge of my seat through the second half of the book.