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 does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.
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It's the story of a teenage girl's encounter with a nomadic group centered around a charismatic leader. Set in the 1960s, a few members of the group murder the people who were staying in the home of a Hollywood actor, leaving behind cryptic signs in blood on the walls. Among the murdered are a beautiful actress and her young son. A fictionalized account of the Manson murders was always going to be an easy sell, especially when it tells the story from the viewpoint of a teenage adherent.
So is the hype justified in this case? On the publisher's side, of course. It's a crime novel centered on a young woman who is involved in the Manson cult-like group and who walks away (this is evident from the opening chapter of the book). How could this book fail to reach the bestseller lists? It's a thinly veiled retelling of an infamous case that we're still fascinated by and given the respectable veneer of literary fiction.
And the book itself isn't bad. It's overwritten; the poetic descriptions and flowery language often intrudes into the story itself, but it's not badly written. The story itself is fine, too. And there's where the hype hurts the reader's reaction to the novel itself. A book so lauded and celebrated should just be better. Instead, it's typical. There's the framing device of the narrator's older self living her current life and looking back on the events of that summer. There's the coming of age story of a teenager feeling out of sorts with her friends and discovering that her parents are flawed. There's a relationship with a cooler, older woman, who influences her. There's nothing new here, outside of it being about a murderous cult. But it was a diverting read, and I can't say I didn't enjoy it.
An Aside: I'm irked at the tendency to call women over the age of twelve "young girls." Why do we do this? We'd never call a man in his twenties, or even a teenager, a young boy. It's infantilizing and inaccurate. Let's not do this. Let's allow books to feature women, and refer to them as such right in the title.
Before requesting, I read other people's reviews of the book and was intrigued by Cline's debut which is a fictional account of a cult murder. Unfortunately, I didn't like the book and am in the minority with my less than
Our narrator is Evie, who is either her 14 year-old self in 1969, or her adult self in present day. I felt that as a character, the main character, Evie wasn't overly deep or robust and came off as very one-dimensional. I wasn't sure if Cline purposely wrote her this way so that Evie would be more of an unreliable narrator (because she wasn't present for the actual event), or because she's supposed to be 14, but I felt detached from Evie, and therefore also detached from the story. The narrative was such a slow build that I almost gave up on the book several times. I expected to be more mesmerized by Susanne since Evie seemed to be more enamored with her rather than the so-called charismatic leader, Russell, but again, I was not and didn't see the attraction.
The story lacked in any originality. It was like reading an account of the Manson family with lovelier prose. I would definitely pick up another book by this author, she is a beautiful writer, but this particular book wasn't for me.
The plot takes place in two periods: one when the main character is a teen, and the other when she is in her late middle age.
In the first period, the girl, Evie, is 14 years old and obsessed with a group of free-spirited young hippie girls (mostly slightly older teens) who she encounters in a park. In particular, she’s smitten by the sensuous, stunning, and mysterious Suzanne. She’ll do anything for Suzanne’s attention and approval. Evie learns that the girls are followers of a local commune cult leader named Russell. He rules his members in a run-down ruin of a ranch hidden in the hills, a short bicycle-ride’s distance away from Evie’s suburban northern California home.
The second time period is many decades later, perhaps sometime close to the present day, although we are not given any exact frame of reference. Evie is a late-middle-aged woman. She is temporarily taking care of a very dear former lover’s northern California beach home while he is away on vacation. That friend is one of the very few who know the secret of her history with the notorious Russell cult all of whom are now in prison. Unfortunately, his immature teenage son also knows this secret. The son comes home with this girlfriend not knowing that his father is not home and that Evie is house-sitting. They are both impressed and curious about her infamous past life. As the plot thickens, we wonder: will he or his girlfriend betray her identity to the police?
As much as I loved this book, there was also something about the book that thoroughly disturbed me, something that was slightly off, slightly wrong. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. That’s why I waited almost a full week before I wrote this review. I wanted to give the book time to settle…time for me to dwell on what it was that was causing me such intellectual distress.
Then I finally got it. I realized that the author got the intellectual or cultural mood of the period wrong. Unlike the true 60s, her fictional reenactment had no antiestablishment radicalism. Instead, the cult leader was driven by a desire to score a major record album deal and thereby get a chance at being a famous celebrity singer. That goal is virtually incompatible with the spirit of the 1960 radicalism…although it is a common goal of today’s Millennials (and the author belongs to that generation). Even Charles Manson—however psychotic he must have been—was still driven by the goal of causing the establishment to fail through inciting—through his murders—a Helter-Skelter-like worldwide race war leading toward some kind of apocalypse.
So, the book nearly got a five-star rating from me purely because it makes for psychologically riveting and thrilling literary fiction. However, I feel compelled to subtract at least one star for the author not getting the authenticity of the period right. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the real thing, it is an important error; for everyone else, it probably doesn’t matter much.
If you are drawn to literary thrillers with psychological depth, you’ll love this book. If you were part of the antiestablishment movement of the mid to late 1960, then this book might disappoint and confuse you…but it is still worth reading. The author gets youth right. What she get’s wrong about the 60s may only be important (in fiction, at least), to the memories of those of us who lived through it. Most of us have long since joined the establishment and may have a hard time remembering what we believed in “way back when.”
It's about a Manson-esque cult, yes, but it's also about female friendships and vulnerable young adulthood - and exploitation. Cline paints a picture of a society where girls are primed culturally to seek attention from men, where manipulation is constant and frequently unconscious; I'll be spending a while chewing over the juxtaposition of the 1969 chapters and the "present day" sections where Evie observes a teenage girl and her college-aged boyfriend.
Evie Boyd, the fourteen year-old protagonist of Emma Cline’s first novel, lives with her divorced mother in Southern California. Evie’s grandmother was a well-known television actress (think Lucille Ball) who’s left them comfortably well off. But, as Evie observes, the inherited wealth affords her mother no power in her relationships with men. We watch, through Evie’s eyes, as her mother nervously primps and fusses over her appearance in order to attract a series of men (Evie’s erstwhile father, included) who are mostly interested in her money.
Despite her evident disdain of her mother’s behavior, Evie herself falls into similar patterns, at first relatively innocently, by destroying her relationship with a lifelong friend over a boy and later, in a much more sinister fashion, as she falls in with a cult and allows herself to be pimped out by Russell, its charismatic leader, a thinly disguised version of Charles Manson. And while Russell’s manipulations and the general squalor of life on “the ranch” provide the book’s most gripping passages, The Girls is really less about the Manson family and more about exploring the way women (and girls) are conditioned throughout their lives to be second class citizens who are subservient to men. So when the girls of Russell’s ranch finally perform their unthinkable deeds, the reader has already seen the many subtle [and not so subtle] ways girls are groomed to feel inferior to men and to cede control to men.
The book is broken into three segments, each is framed with a few pages of 60 year old Evie, looking back on that particular period in her life, so the reader is given the benefit of her 45 years of self-reflection. When she thinks back on sexually servicing a rock musician that Russell wants to impress, she recognizes, "…I'd enacted some pattern, been defined, neatly, as a girl, providing a known value. There was something almost comforting about it, the clarity of purpose, even as it shamed me. I didn't understand that you could hope for more."
And when she considers the general public’s judgement of the other girls at the ranch, she describes their ego as an unused muscle, “…growing slack and useless,” and how she knew that, “… just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself.” And much later, when a trio of young visitors, a girl and two men, head out from the house where adult Evie is staying, she imagines the girl in the backseat of the car, being ignored by the men (despite having been a sexual partner to both), occasionally interjecting into the conversation, “…trying to campaign for her own existence.”
This is a brilliant novel with rich, multi-dimensional characters, a suspenseful plot and a powerful message. Even if the language became a bit precious at times, I thought it worked well in service of the story, which is a sort of wistful, memory play. A powerful debut that I think will resonate particularly with women. And more particularly with those who are not afraid to call themselves feminists.
The prose is somewhat overdone (for example, students at Evie's boarding school walk with backpacks "turtled" on their backs, p. 339). Still, The Girls offers an interesting exploration of Manson Family dynamics, with Suzanne as the Susan Atkins character and Evie as one of the many hangers-on at the Spahn Ranch. Definitely worth reading.
Note that The Girls is an emotional book. We see Evie as a young girl, in the first stages of teenage rebellion, searching for a new identity and craving excitement in a way only teenagers can. We also see Evie as an adult, coming to gripes with her past. Both versions of Evie are raw and desperate; young Evie is desperate for love, while older Evie is desperate for peace. Both are supremely angry, and both leave a significant impression on a reader. In addition, these are not superficial emotions. These are raw, visceral, and barely-contained emotions that can make reading the novel difficult at times because of their intensity.
The emotions are not the only things that are intense. Cult life is consuming; Evie's relationship with Suzanne is equally so. The duties of the girls on the ranch are disturbing, and it becomes way too clear at just how easy it is to manipulate the right type of person with something as simple as attention, ritual, and rhetoric. Ms. Cline uses this depressing backdrop of abject poverty and hero worship to frame Evie's past and present, define friendship, and derive some unsettling truths about responsibility of one's actions.
The Girls is not an easy book to read, and yet the conclusions to which Ms. Cline leads readers are vital. While the action takes place on the ranch and surrounding this cult, the story has universal appeal in regards to its messaging. In fact, the lessons about identity, belonging, cause and effect, and the lasting impact of one intimate relationship are profound and downright chilling. The Girls not only lives up to the hype, it surpasses it and really is one of the must-read books of the year.
Cline uses this setting to explore multiple facets of the female coming-of-age, including cravings to belong, parental relationships, unsatisfying friendships and sexual awakening. While reading THE GIRLS, one is reminded of another recent excellent debut novel by another Kleine (Although Andrea spells her name differently, she has written a very similar novel, entitled CALF.) While Emma Cline loosely bases her novel on the Tate/Labianca murders by the Manson clan in the 60’s, Andrea Kleine uses the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan by John Hinckley in the 80’s. Both view these watershed events through the eyes of adolescent girls. Both authors are remarkably successful at evoking a sense of place and the potential for doom. The seminal point both authors make is that, given the right conditions, adolescent angst and alienation, particularly as experienced by young women, can come dangerously close to insanity or criminal behavior. Despite being separated by two decades, both young women experience similar moments where they could have easily committed atrocities. A key element in Andrea Kleine’s novel is that she manages to evoke the mindset of a person like John Hinckley. Although Manson, in the person of Russell, is much less nuanced in Emma Cline’s novel, the Suzanne character depicts that role—a damaged, controlling figure capable of negatively influencing a young woman.
I expected a story that would essentially be a historical novel giving me a fictional behind-the-scenes look at what the life and crimes of a Manson-like cult would be like. That expectation was only the beginning of what this novel offers its readers. It portrays why such a cult can be attractive, how a person could gradually fall under the spell and most importantly just how these things are repeated and reinforced within the right environment.
For me, this book quickly became less about whatever similarities there might be between it and the Manson family and more about understanding the protagonist's (Evie) journey. Cline's writing is, first of all, captivating (or enchanting, or beautiful, I have a hard time finding exactly how to describe it). Yet the beauty of the writing never gets in the way of the reader understanding Evie. The actions and decisions that might have been easy to criticize had this been handled with less skill become understandable and even almost logical as we experienced the psychological sensations Evie experiences.
While the perspective is largely that of a young teenage girl (though filtered through the psyche of the teenager when she is older, think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) the depth of the psychological portrayal allows readers of any age or gender to relate. I found that in addition to living through this with Evie I also relived some moments of my own life but with a new understanding of why I may have done things. In other words, this is definitely a great story but it can also be a growing experience for the reader.
I have never been so happy to have a book give me something different from what I expected, and thought I wanted. I am looking forward to reading more from this amazing new author.
This novel should appeal to a wide range of readers. From those interested in the 1960s to those who like to experience a novel with a decided psychological depth. Lovers of good writing regardless of genre should really consider picking this book up.
Reviewed from a copy made available through Goodreads First Reads.
From the description: "Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad."
I've never read the Eugenides'
I found The Girls to be slow-moving and uninteresting. Evie was an obnoxious teenager that I felt never grew up -- there was no "coming of age" -- she just kept reveling in this sordid past that she didn't want people to know about but was happy to share it with a strange girl. At first I did understand Evie, I remember a couple of summers of my own in my early teen years when I had no friends because they decided to go hang with someone else. I suddenly wasn't cool enough. I get that. But the obsession with Suzanne, I didn't get. The grown-up Evie's inability to actually grow up...at some point you've got to move on, right?
So I won't be recommending this one, it's definitely not a sure bet. If someone wants to hang with a creepy cult, they should probably go find one of the books about THE creepy cult this one is loosely based on (Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson or Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders) -- that's what I plan on doing!
The much publicized, must-read of the summer is certainly provocative. The Girls delivers on drama with a teasing narrative. High voltage characters are juxtaposed with meek, mild-mannered types. This technique provides the reader with clarity regarding the emotional turmoil of the main character, Evie, a young woman struggling to find herself and assemble the fragments of her self-worth. While it may be a stretch to consider The Girls entertaining, in the usual sense, given the dark themes and plotline, I do think the book is a valuable read. Emma Cline’s storytelling is engaging and will hit a nerve with many women. I also found the book thought-provoking and honest. An original novel invested with arresting ideas. Highly recommended.
Goodreads Teaser: "Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel
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 does 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."
Wow. The decades may be different but we women, girls, still seem to be the same. For all we've supposedly gained and grown, we're still the same deep down in those spaces we rarely talk about, or even acknowledge to ourselves. Cline has found a haunting, and brutally honest way of exposing our negative spaces — the spaces that exist between objects, where light doesn't cast shadows.
The manner in which Evie shares her story makes it all so understandable, so very real. Granted most of us probably didn't come of age in the late 60's - early 70's, so we didn't have that same dichotomy of the blissed-out drug culture rubbing shoulders with the establishment of women as the little lady, or "mother" even to their husbands (and maybe more so to their husbands than children), but we do still have that essential need to be seen. And certainly all people have that need, but in our culture men and boys are seen simply because of their gender. But women, when we're seen, are seen as labels or roles (often the two are the same) — the mother, Madonna, whore, wife, sister, daughter. And Cline brings all this raging to the surface, but still doing it as a woman would; a man wouldn't known of the secret inner lives women have, thus wouldn't write this story the same way. Couldn't write it the same way.
Evie's innocence is tempered by her personal abyss. That unknown freedom she sees in Suzanne tempts the hidden, smothered, frightening parts of herself. The parts she fears, yet at the same time longs to embrace and explore. Rarely have I ever met a character so adept at expressing those spaces we have that are undefined, the spaces we share but don't admit to, never speak of. By giving Evie Suzanne, Cline has created the perfect foil for Evie. Suzanne is at once everything Evie yearns for, and at the same time she's what scares her. But Evie's at that age where her blind desire for acceptance trumps any common sense; a fact that is shown so vividly and poignantly that it almost hurts to read, because in Evie's pain is our own pain. Different stories and situations, but that yearning for our place in the world, a sense of belonging, that feeling is a common bond for all women.
I know I'm not giving this book the review it deserves, but it's not for lack of desire — I'm still so overwhelmed by this book, by all that it pulled out of me, that I find it beyond challenging to craft a coherent review. And maybe that is as it should be; maybe my disjointed comments and thoughts give voice to the depth and reach Cline's writing owns. This may not feel like it as you're reading it, but it is an absolute MUST READ book, and the sooner the better. This is one of those books that will live on within you for days, months, years to come; the power within these pages will help shape the internal voices of women at all stages, from the maiden, to the mother, to the crone - none are safe from the spotlight this book will shine inside of you without you even noticing until it's too late to turn back. By then, you won't want to do anything but move forward with Evie to hear her story, and learn the language of our innermost selves. I end this review the same way I began. Wow.
So when reading The Girls by author Emma Cline, it was impossible for an old boomer like me not to feel…not nostalgia certainly but more perhaps a visceral memory of the fear that the event inspired. Certainly this is not the first novel to create a fictional account based on the events surrounding the murders that I have read but it was one of the first that took me back so strongly to that summer of ’69 and that says a lot about the book especially as Cline avoids stressing the extreme violence as a means to engender an emotional response. This is more about the psychology behind cults that allows this kind of violence to occur than about the event itself.
The narrator, Evie, now middle-aged, is looking back at the year 1969. Her parents are divorced and are moving on with their lives and her best friend has rejected her, leaving her lonely and rebellious. It is then when she spots the women in the park, seeming to move with a kind of confidence and joy that Evie wishes she could emulate. When she finally meets them and is invited to join their ‘family’, she is more fascinated by Suzanne, one of the girls in the cult, than by Russell, the Manson-like leader who is, interestingly, hardly present in the story except as an idealized symbol of power to his followers, an ideal that is completely negated when he actually is present. This is a tale more about the women who are seduced by the idea of a powerful man, women who seek validation and strength from this man who, in reality, in no way resembles the ideal. He is at best a catalyst -the women act on his orders while he remains hidden in the shadows. Rather than giving them strength, he drains them of theirs. But even then, when the cult is finally uncovered, Russell hides while the girls still try to protect him:
Even at the end, the girls had been stronger than Russell.
The Girls is not an easy read. It is a fascinating psychological thriller but it is also an unapologetic feminist novel. Cline has created a powerful narrative about identity and friendship and the trap too many young women fall into of allowing others to define their value. As such, it is almost unrelentingly dark and pessimistic about the role of women in society, not only in the past but in the present where Evie is confronted with the reality of how little has changed as she watches another young woman lose her self-worth to a man who considers her as little more than a useful prop in his life. And yet Cline manages to deliver her message without beating the reader over the head with it, a feat somewhat like walking a high wire without a net and she does it without a misstep. The Girls has been receiving a lot of hype and I have to say this is the rare book that deserves it. That this is Cline’s debut novel makes it even more impressive.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review