By Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Fiction (Adult)
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.
The Girls is undoubtedly a challenging read. Based on the Manson murders, make no mistake, there is a hefty amount of uncomfortable content centering around drug use and sexual encounters (some of which I would clearly label as assault). The fact that the main protagonist Evie is a mere 14 years old, makes it one tough pill to swallow.
Based on several reviews, I was anticipating a dark read full of teenage angst that played on a graphic core in order to up the “wow” factor. I could not have been more wrong. Nor have I ever been happier to be so wrong. The Girls is a shining example of how to utilize first person narration in the most successful ways.
It is the end of the 60’s in Northern California. It is summer, and Evie Boyd feels isolated and out-of-place. Like many teenage girls she just wants to belong. Enter Suzanne. She is care-free and captivating. Immediately drawn to this young stranger, she slowly begins distancing herself from her family and only real friend to spend more time with Suzanne and her friends on the ranch led by the amorous Russell. Evie feels like she has finally found her place in life. But once the initial luster wears off, she realizes she may be involved in something sinister and dangerous.
“My eyes were already habituated to the texture of decay, so I thought that I had passed back into the circle of light.”
Evie Boyd is so bitterly realistic and raw as a protagonist that there is a part of her I found uncomfortably familiar. As a young impressionable girl desperately seeking an acceptance that most of us can remember feeling was out of reach during some point in our young lives, she is undeniably relatable to at least a small degree. It is this painfully honest approach to her character that gives her and The Girls true life and credibility. The part of me that would normally question her frighteningly bad decisions and actions was easily replaced with an equal amount of sadness and understanding. I didn’t like that I was juggling this new-found sympathy for a character who was making harrowing choices, but I couldn’t help but admire the author’s ability to solicit this from me. Full immersion into Evie’s life had occurred.
“You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?”
Cline spares zero expense or feelings in effort to establish this dark world that is a cult. She brazenly exposes the reader to the loss of Evie’s innocence, gross sexual encounters and the repetitive drug use that fuels this disturbing journey into one young girl’s psych and time on the ranch. The very facets that make The Girls so disturbing also make it so triumphant. This no holds barred approach succeeds in setting the stage and making the unfathomable feel horribly possible. It is through this bold technique that the reader can begin to process how our young protagonist has come to find herself on the ranch. This is a terrifyingly sincere representation of cult life and culture. It is not meant to be pleasant or easy.
Cline’s writing is almost poetic yet pragmatic. She effortlessly supplies a fluid narration that leaps from Evie’s past to present. I have noted some reader’s struggled with the change in tone at times, but I personally found this to play perfectly into her transitions, conveying our narrator’s current state of mind more effectively. The ending did not offer an overly satisfying conclusion, but I couldn’t really ask that from The Girls.
So here is the hard part, I loved this novel. But I am hesitant to recommend it. This will be too much for many and rightfully so. This is a brutal coming of age story during a very dark time. It has burrowed deep into the core of my mind and is sure to remain for some time. If you find yourself truly fascinated with cult culture and the human psych and can stomach the harsh reality of what it entails, then consider adding this to your list.