The Girls by Emma Cline is a lightly fictionalized account of aspects of the Manson murders from the late 1960s. This is not a subject that would typically interest me; information and interpretations of that event, along with the cultural context of the Summer of Love era, abound. But this book offered a unique angle: the lens of a single girl — Evie Boyd — who is psychologically seduced by the cult’s leader (in the book, his name is Russell), and joins the “family” of, mostly, girl followers.
This book is thus part of the exploding category of revisionist history — the narrative approach in which a minor or overlooked character (usually a woman, often a wife or lover) retells a familiar story giving voice to the unheard. The fashion got its start (or at least a lot of momentum) with the success years ago of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant which brought to light the story of biblical Dinah and reached an apex with The Paris Wife by Paula McClain which told the story of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife. This narrative approach allows the reader to consider a familiar story from a new, and sometimes uncomfortable, vantage point. This fiction category is an increasingly crowded field, making it tough to stand out. The Girls does manage to stand out, in both good and less good ways.
This book wants to show us how a girl who seems in every way to be normal could still find herself caught up with the Manson gang and its horrors.
Emma Cline’s writing pulls the reader into the world of a charismatic cult leader and ably shows how he would be able to hypnotically seduce — emotional, sexual or otherwise — young, impressionable individuals who are, in essence, waiting in the wings for their own lives to begin, but are not yet capable of handling, or understanding, adulthood. Certain attributes of adolescence makes this group easier and more rewarding prey for cults and fringe groups but the goal of a keen predator is catching them at their most vulnerable moment, especially girls.
Cline lyrically captures this time in a girl's life and paints a compelling portrait of the transition from girl to woman where simply belonging to something, anything, is fiercely intoxicating. The book paints a picture of this trembling, excited uncertainty, including the complications that ensue when young women feel lust and love for the first time. It’s a moment of maturation during which attentive parents hover nervously, hoping any outcomes from a child's impulses will be recoverable.
No such luck for Evie Boyd who during her coming-of-age moment is tragically caught in Manson's web, embraced by the family of young girls, has a sexual awakening, and unwittingly becomes part of a series of events that permanently alters her life's trajectory and horrifies the world.
The plot line of the Manson murders itself is not compelling. We know how it ends. But that's the big picture story. The real plot in this book is intimate, it's about how Evie both creates and reacts to the events of that summer. The writing is crisp, at some points poetic, at others even startling. The startling part is initially wonderful, as Cline brings words together that aren’t easily or often juxtaposed: “The end had already arrived: each interaction was its own elegy.” Over time, however, the in-your-face style feels forced, as if the writer was seeking out the dialectic of a sentence for the exercise itself, and it dragged on the momentum of the book itself.
The story is told from two points of view: that of Evie as a 14-year old and Evie as a middle-aged woman, three decades later. Cline is equally adept at capturing older lonely Evie whose life has been cruelly shaped by the decisions of her unthinking, needy 14-year old self.
But this brings me to the less good part of the book. This book is not for everyone, and critiques that it plums the depths of the Manson murders just deep enough to tell a sensationalist, titillating story without ever itself diving into the concept of evil are fair. The book ultimately sends a message that perhaps Evie Boyd is not to blame, but rather, well, I'm not sure, I guess the maturation process of humans themselves when it gets mixed up at just the right moment with a perfect storm of terribleness is the culprit underlying Evie's very bad choices.
Even so, the quiet power of this book caught up with me when I happened to be watching a news piece about the now elderly women, the real Manson "girls," still imprisoned for the horrific murders. In their now wrinkled and sunken faces, I suddenly could see the very young girls they once were, and I felt pity for the choice they made, the one that turned out to be unrecoverable.