Over the summer, my (all-female, all-under-30) book club read The Girls. It seemed an obvious choice: a novel about young women—two in particular, and the nebulous, fraught dynamics of their relationship as members of a cult in the late 1960s—by a young woman: twenty-seven-year-old Emma Cline.
In addition to our natural affinity for the content, we were also eager to read such a highly anticipated debut novel. Based on promising glimpses of Cline’s writing, including her Plimpton Prize-winning story in the Paris Review, “Marion,” there was a bidding war for Cline’s first manuscript, which Random House won with an offer rumored around $2 million. And although nearly every review agrees that her writing is green in places, the hype was well worth it: Cline’s voice is fresh and powerful; the story is captivating and haunting.
The Girls is a fictionalized story not so loosely based on the Manson Family cult and murders of the late 1960s. Names are changed (Charles is “Russell,” for example), and the story is streamlined, though many of the details are kept intact: a tripped-out school bus, an aspiring musician with peripheral Hollywood connections, a ranch-style commune in the desert boasting of free love, spiritual enlightenment, and a host of female devotees. Its action takes place over the course of one summer, culminating in Cline’s version of the Tate murders.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Cline reveals her fascination with how and why women are cajoled into cults—the answer (or at least the start of one) to which is at the heart of The Girls:
They speak fondly of their time on the ranch. It was something I could understand. They had been welcomed at the ranch, given nicknames both childish and aspirational. They had been held tightly and told they were unlike anyone else. I was not so different. We all wanted to be chosen in some way. Maybe it’s just an accident which women are chosen by violence. I wonder all the time how easily things could have turned out badly for me; my life gone curdled and sour, ending viciously.
Cline creates space to diverge from the historical details of the Manson Family by telling the story from the perspective of a would-be cult member, Evie Boyd. She is an average fourteen-year-old girl beginning to navigate the adult world of sex, power, and meaning. Evie’s parents are divorcing and she watches (and resents) her mother’s desperation for male attention; she watches (and admires) her father’s new, younger girlfriend; she reads fashion magazines that inculcate her with tips for capturing male attention: how to dress and glance and flirt and speak and move through the world. When she glimpses the utter freedom of Suzanne—a member of Russell’s cult—at a local park, she becomes obsessed with learning how to be (and be with) a woman so apparently unfettered.
The key to Cline’s masterful storytelling is her ability to convey a narrative from a primarily emotional vantage point. The Girls is charged with anger, desire, loneliness, confusion, bravado, and fear; plot details are filtered through Evie’s emotional register. The experience is eerie and powerful: it really feels like adolescence. This familiarity is made frightening when the reader sees just how naturally Evie gets swept up in the promises of the cult: the way she narrowly interprets people and events to fit the narrative she desperately wants to be true, the excuses she makes when witnessing violent aberrations in that narrative, the willful naiveté that quickly replaces her childhood innocence. Although The Girls builds toward the end-of-summer killing spree, the climax in plot pales in comparison to Cline’s chilling and immediate portrayal of young women on the verge.