Richly and precisely written straight from the “twitching rabbit heart” of Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old desperately searching for affirmation in the summer of 1969, The Girls is a haunting novel. Emma Cline's much anticipated book narrates the death of the idyllic, and the ushering in of something darker, in the final year of the most iconically optimistic decade. Evie is disenchanted with her soulless middle class life and her vapid friendships built around inane beauty rituals and love songs on repeat. One day in the park, she sees three women and her life is abruptly fractured, departing from the mundane rituals that have defined it. The women she observes from afar are the cast that will become the titular girls.
The Girls is a fictionalized re-telling of the so-called “Manson Family” cult—yes, Charles Manson. In the novel, Manson is Russell, a third-rate but charismatic musician who is the daft philosophic leader at The Ranch—a scrubby compound of drifters and idealists, united in their disdain—perhaps even hatred?—of the world as it is. Evie integrates into the group and becomes one of “the Girls,” who share drugs, food, work and Russell's bed. But it isn't Russell who fascinates Evie so much as Suzanne, the de facto leader of the women. Evie searches Suzanne for a reflection of herself, to understand herself through Suzanne's eyes. What is stirring about the novel, particularly for women, is its exploration of the search for validation, and how often we are told that that sense of worth will be gained through the attentions of a man.
The summer of 1969 is contextualized through a story line that runs alongside it—Evie in the present day, in a deserted beach town, reflecting on that season of her life. The two stories run parallel until we reach the chilling climax that we know is coming from the very beginning. Yet, its not the murders that are most disquieting in The Girls, it's the creeping decay, the slow unraveling of The Ranch, Suzanne and Russell—the vicarious death of the idealism of the '60s. The crumbling facade is brought into unforgiving focus through Cline's precision in both detail and language. Just before the murders, for example, Evie leaves The Ranch briefly, and then returns, noticing a new strangeness—
Cline's gotten her share of (well-deserved) praise for this, her debut novel, and some criticism, too—something like “millennials blah blah cult glorification blah blah.” I lean more toward the believe-all the-hype camp. The Girls bleeds intelligence and, what's more, it asks questions that are still heavy today—and supplies the answers, too.