Emma Cline’s The Girls

As you know, Bob, I review for Locus magazine, with a focus on books falling at the darker end of the literary spectrum.  From time to time, they pass on one of my reviews, because they feel the book I’ve selected was published too long ago for it to be considered current anymore.  This was the case with a review I wrote of Emma Cline’s The Girls, so I thought I’d share it here.

For almost fifty years, now, the Manson family murders have preoccupied the American imagination. In a number of books and movies, Charles Manson (in varying degrees of disguise) has incited his followers to horrific acts, and time and again, they have followed his directions.  It’s a story that accommodates multiple interpretations:  as a parable of the dark underside of the 1960’s; as an example of the American infatuation with self-styled prophets; as a study of the willingness of the young to commit atrocities (which resonates with the American military experience in Vietnam).  Now, in her excellent The Girls, Emma Cline has chosen to view the Manson killings through the lens of female friendship, desire, and obsession.  The result is gripping.

The protagonist and narrator of Cline’s narrative is Evie Boyd.  As the novel opens, she is in middle-age, a home healthcare aide between jobs, staying at the house of an old friend.  When that friend’s son, Julian, and his girlfriend, Sasha, show up to stay at the house on their way to a drug pick up, Julian recognizes Evie as having been connected to a set of notorious murders in her youth.  Predictably, he wants to know if she participated in the crimes, which she denies, but with a hesitance that raises our suspicions.  The narrative then shifts to 1969, where it will spend most of its time.  Evie is fourteen, living in Petaluma.  Her parents are recently divorced, her businessman father having committed the cliché of leaving her mother for his secretary.  Still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, Evie’s mother exists in a state of almost permanent distraction, moving from fad to fad as she seeks to adjust to her new circumstances.  This leaves Evie, who lives with her, largely free to spend her days as she pleases.  This mainly consists of spending time with her best friend, Connie.  Much of what later generations will associate with the era, from the counter culture, to civil rights protests, to anti-war activity, takes place at a remove, fodder for the evening news.  Leaving for a boarding school in the fall, Evie is in a holding pattern.

This changes when Evie sees a trio of older girls passing through a park in which a community cookout is being held.  Something about the girls, their ironic attitude toward the festivities around them, catches Evie’s attention, and when she encounters one of the girls again, she seeks to earn her friendship.  Suzanne—she gives only her first name—is coolly amused by Evie.  But when she meets the younger girl a third time, stuck on the side of the road after her bicycle throws its chain, she loads Evie and her bike into the bus she and her friends are riding in and takes her to the ranch where they are living with the man they call Russell.  The ranch is a study in chaos.  Its (mostly female) residents subsist on food donated and scrounged from local dumpsters.  The small children who are with them run free and largely untended.  Defunct cars punctuate the grounds.  All the women sleep with Russell.  Cline’s Manson figure is overwhelmingly charismatic, a would-be recording artist trying to persuade an aging musician, Mitch Lewis, to secure a recording contract for him.  Just beneath Russell’s surface, however, violence flicks its tail, ready to be set loose.

Russell wastes no time bringing Evie to his trailer, where he sexually assaults her.  It’s not enough to drive her away from the ranch, instead, she views the act as making her part of the community, as bringing her closer to Suzanne.  It’s the older girl who is the focus of Evie’s attention, not Russell.  For Evie, Suzanne is an emblem of radical freedom, a vision of what she might become, and, increasingly, an object of desire.  Although Suzanne responds to Evie’s admiration, her affections are mercurial, subject to impulses that are frequently opaque.  She fixates on Russell in a way Evie does not, as do the older girls at the ranch, and is jealous of the attention her pays to her.  Yet she also has scattered moments of doubting whether Evie should be with the rest of them.

For Evie, though, the ranch is an escape from a mother focused on a new boyfriend, a father suddenly a stranger.  Her interest in the place is motivated less by an articulated politics and more by a desire to belong.  In addition, the ranch is where she can be near to Suzanne, who emerges as her first great obsession.  For this reason, when Russell sends Suzanne and a few others on a mission of violence, Evie is eager to accompany her.  Although Cline does not shy away from the depiction of horrific events, her attention is not so much on sensationalism as it is on the possibility of some kind of ethical choice, even in the run up to an awful act.

In its structure, The Girls recalls such Modernist classics as Heart of Darkness, My Antonía, and The Great Gatsby, novels whose narrators relate the tales of individuals in whose stories they played a part.  From this perspective, Russell is of far less importance than Suzanne, whose tragedy Evie participates in and records.  Scenes set in the present, when Evie spends time with Sasha, and observes her behavior with Julian, gives the narrative a cyclical feel, as she watches Julian and Sasha repeating the pattern of Russell and Suzanne’s relationship.

In its closing paragraphs, The Girls suggests that Evie’s experiences have scarred her far more deeply than her calm and graceful narration has indicated.  At the last moment, the novel offers a brief image of hope.  It’s muted, conditional, and a fine conclusion to the book.

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