The Girls by Emma Cline
Opening sentence: “I looked up because of the laughter and kept looking because of the girls.”
I knew that this novel took inspiration from Charles Manson and his cult of followers who notoriously killed 7 people in the summer of 1969, including actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski. What I didn’t realise until reading a bit more about the Manson Family (as they were known) afterwards, was how much this novel can be taken as a fictional version of those events.
The enigmatic cult leader in the book, Russell, is a failed musician, just like Manson, the girl in his cult that gets the most focus, in the novel is Suzanne, in real life, was Susan Atkins, the events take place mainly on an isolated ranch in the summer of 1969 in both versions…there are lots of similarities. I do not mean this to be a negative comment, simply an observation and, for me, the link to reality actually made me like The Girls even more.
Narrated by Evie Boyd, we are introduced to her as an older woman and learn about her misspent summer as a teenager on the Californian ranch with Russell, Suzanne and the girls through flashbacks. Cline’s dreamy, exceptionally captivating writing style immediately delivered me into the muggy, hazy summer of the late 60s and perfectly purveys the point-of-view of an impressionable 14-year-old girl, although I definitely preferred the story of young Evie, rather than the jaded older woman telling her tale. Despite there being no traditional climax to the story, as throughout, the final events are referred to a few times (also, we already know what will happen thanks to the story’s inspiration), this doesn’t lessen the impact of the overall read. In fact, when this book was over, I felt that tinge of sadness you get when you just want to remain in the story a little longer and find out more about each characters’ life. I found myself thinking of it often in the days after I had finished, a testament to how powerful the tone and images created by Cline are.
Although this book had an impact on me, in many ways, I felt that the lead character Evie was on the periphery of the girls’ story – she never fully lived at the ranch, so never fully became one of The Girls, the cause of her angst and need to surround herself with such damaged people is never really revealed beyond the normal hardships of being a teenage girl. Apart from her devotion to Suzanne, she doesn’t display a passion for anything, she was very much caught up in her own world, making this, for me, more of a coming-of-age story, with Evie stumbling upon a very adult world, where she is very quickly introduced to a different way of life, the girls and the ranch actually being a backdrop to Evie’s personal story.