Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

June 13th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

Evie Boyd is fourteen and terribly lonely in the summer of 1969. Her parents have recently divorced; her best and only friend, Connie, unceremoniously dumped her after Evie ruined her (so-called) chances with Henry, her older brother’s friend; and said brother Pete ran away with his (rumored to be pregnant) girlfriend – after he and Evie kinda-sorta made out in his bed. Evie is desperate for attention, any attention; and Russell (the Charles Manson figure in this story) preys on girls just like her.

When Evie first spots the girls in the park, she is captivated. Awestruck.

These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.

With their thrift store clothes, unfettered hair, and unshaven armpits, they seem to be carefree, uncomplicated, somehow above it all. Evie wants this for herself – but, more importantly, she wants to belong. To the group, yes, but especially to the girls’ leader Suzanne, with whom Evie is instantly and hopelessly infatuated. (In some ways, this crush makes her a unreliable narrator, at least as it pertains to Suzanne. Even Evie has trouble separating Suzanne’s true motives from what she wishes them to be.)

Before long, Evie is staying at their decrepit old ranch for days at a time, stealing money from her mother for the good of the group, and even bringing in new recruits herself (or trying to, anyway). As summer stretches into August, the mood at the compound gradually sours – thus hurtling the “family” toward the inevitable, bloody climax. Yet Evie doesn’t see it (or chooses not to), for she only has eyes for Suzanne.

The Girls is a searing, shrewd study of girlhood and adolescence (and also adulthood). In fourteen-year-old Evie, women of all ages can find a piece of themselves: the desire to been seen, noticed, understood, appreciated. Loved. Searching for this – always searching – even in the most unlikely of places. Boys with questionable agendas and cliques of fickle peers. Yearning for the comfort of your mother’s or father’s embrace, even as you recoil from it; finally having realized that your parents are as flawed and fallible – as tragically human – as you yourself are. Not quite knowing who are you, yet being certain that it isn’t enough.

While I was reading The Girls, I sometimes thought of When We Were Animals and Daredevils – two other coming-of-age stories that highlight the authors’ uncanny grasp of The Female Experience. Of course, these were all the more notable for having been written by men: Joshua Gaylord and Shawn Vestal, respectively. When We Were Animals came out soon after a kerfuffle in which some bigshot male author complained how hard it was to write women, and I pointed to it as exhibit A that this simply isn’t true. Women aren’t alien creatures, impossibly foreign and unknowable. We’re people too, yo!

Cline not only captures teenage Evie in all her complex, complicated, flawed glory – but also looks forward, to the middle-aged woman that Evie will become. A woman whose life is colored by regret, disappointment, and unrealized dreams –

And now I was older, and the wishful props of future selves had lost their comforts.

But even the surprise of harmless others in the house disturbed me. I didn’t want my inner rot on display, even accidentally. Living alone was frightening in that way. No one to police the spill of yourself, the ways you betrayed your primitive desires. Like a cocoon built around you, made of your own naked proclivities and never tidied into the patterns of actual human life.

– but also love, friendship, and that one fateful night: when Suzanne rejected her and saved her from a life of repentance. Or not, depending on your POV.

Additionally, The Girls answers that one question that always niggled me when reading my skeezy true crime/crazy cult ed. books: how could anyone get sucked up in such nonsense? (Hindsight is 20/20, but still. Pocket-sized, wild-haired Charles Manson – really?) Like any other predator, Russell targets vulnerable girls and women: those from “broken” homes, with absent, neglectful, or abusive parents (it still boggles the mind that Evie could disappear for days and her mom never said boo about it); those without friends or acquaintances to anchor them to the outside world; those with low self-esteem or mental health issues.

At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.

Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.

But also those with resources and connections that can be pilfered and plundered.

For the women, this resource is often their bodies, their sexuality. The grooming starts immediately, with Russell testing the new recruits’ personal boundaries, breaching them in ways small and then large to see what he can get away with. Starved for affection, conditioned to conflate lust with love, Russell sadly finds no shortage of potential victims. Russell also traffics in the bodies of his female followers, trading them to men like Mitchell in exchange for food, drugs, and record deals.

(FYI: the book contains several rape scenes – not only is the consent questionable at best, but seeing as Evie is only fourteen and the men are well into their thirties, it at least qualifies as statutory rape – but they’re relatively brief and not overtly graphic.)

For me, The Girls is equal parts a coming of age story and a dissection of the inner workings of cults (or, more generally, predators and pedophiles as a whole). It’s no secret that Cline found inspiration in the infamous Manson Family murders; in fact, news reports about the bidding war over The Girls refer to it as the “Charles Manson Family Novel.” So I was more than a little disappointed to see names changed and events altered (although, in retrospect, the former is obviously necessary from a legal standpoint). If you’re familiar with the case, no you’ll see many of the people and events reflected on the pages. However, some of the changes blunt the overall impact for me. (Just a bit, but still.)

For example, the murders are whittled down to a quadruple homicide that takes place on one property (a mansion and the caretaker’s house) over the course of a single night – versus eight murders spread out over two weeks. Here, the crime is more of a personal vendetta than part of an orchestrated attempt to terrorize the general public. In this vein, many of Manson’s outrageous political beliefs are absent in his doppleganger, Russell. There isn’t any Beatles-inspired graffiti on the crime scene walls or armed patrols guarding the compound. Russell’s cult is still repulsive and abusive – a trash heap, in Pete’s words – but the undercurrent on the ranch doesn’t feel quite as intense as you’d imagine it in the source material. And while the group evades arrest for some time, the lack of a crime spree seems less likely to inspire the mass hysteria of the Manson case.

These minor complaints aside, The Girls is simply breathtaking. Cline’s prose sparkles with both skill, and the sheen of truth. The true crime/cult angle is an obvious draw, but you should also read it if you like coming-of-age books written by and for women.

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Evie is clearly infatuated with Suzanne, though it’s not always obvious if it’s a platonic or romantic crush. (Honestly, I’m not sure Evie herself knows the difference.) The two are intimate – once – although I’m uncomfortable describing it as a sex scene. Russell sends Evie and Suzanne home with Mitch; Suzanne and Mitch understand that it’s for sex, a bribery of sorts, but Evie is left in the dark. At 3AM, a naked Suzanne sneaks into her room in order to bring Evie to Mitch. Evie is reluctant, but eventually follows her. Mitch rapes Evie and then, at his direction, Suzanne performs oral sex on Evie. Then Mitch “has sex” with them both again. Evie is into it with Suzanne, but not while Mitch is watching. She simply tolerates Mitch’s prodding; enthusiastic consent this is not. It’s also worth mentioning that Evie is fourteen, Suzanne is nineteen, and Mitch is well into his thirties or forties. It’s definitely rape on Mitch’s part, though I’m not sure how I’d characterize Suzanne: victim and victimizer?

In any case, if I had to put a label on Evie, I think she’s best described as bisexual: she has a clear interest in guys, and seems to also harbor a romantic feelings for Suzanne.

Animal-friendly elements: After the divorce, Evie’s mom Jean goes vegetarian, but this is presented as just one of many New Age lifestyle kicks (tarot readings, astrological charts, yoga, etc; e.g., “And we hadn’t eaten meat in forever. Sal told my mother that to eat meat was to eat fear and that ingesting fear would make you gain weight.”). Adult Evie’s friend Dan started a vegetarian frozen food company after giving up on acting.

A link between cruelty to human and nonhuman animals is drawn in several passages. In a moment of foreshadowing, Guy describes slaughtering pigs on his family’s farm in Kansas: “They knew what was coming,” he said to a rapt audience. “They’d smile when I brought food and flip out when I had the knife.” Julian killed his professor’s dog in retaliation for giving him a failing grade in class; he also treats his (much younger, as in statutory rape younger) girlfriend Sasha like garbage, abandoning her on a drug run and humiliating her in front of his friends.


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