Evie Boyd was just fourteen in 1969, adrift and neglected by her parents. Her father had recently divorced and marriedhis secretary Tamar. Her mother was dating a series of men and was far more focused on them than on her daughter. The Girls, a novel by Emma Cline, tells the story of that summer when this desperately needy young woman fell in with a cult centered on Russell, a charismatic leader modeled on the infamous Charles Manson.
Evie, though, was less in thrall to Russell than to Suzanne, one of the women in his group. Suzanne was strong, exciting, and mysterious in Evie’s eyes. She also seemed to have a soft spot for Evie, paying attention to her and taking her under her wing. Another way of looking at it, Suzanne saw Evie’s weakness and need and exploited it. Both seem to be true.
The story goes back and forth from the present day to 1969 as Evie remembers the past, the atrocities committed by her friends, The Girls of the title, and her role as a hanger-on in a cult modeled very much on the Manson Family. By the end of the summer, they would murder four people, including a child, in a grizzly, blood-drenched murder that is clearly based on the Tate/LaBianca murders.
Cline captures the kind of aimless drifting that can lead people into terrifying situations. Evie’s need for approval drives her into ever more questionable decisions and behavior. She allows herself to be sexually exploited again and again because she needs approval. Evie’s hindsight recognizes how as a girl, she felt she had so little to offer other than her body. The greatest strength of this book is the keen insights into gender roles and how they endanger young women.
I think The Girls is well-written for the most part. It focuses, without ever mentioning the words, on how misogyny and sexism pressure young women into devaluing themselves in search of male approval. There is deep well of wisdom about how people seek connection. She understands that need that allows a people to knowingly act against their best interests and to knowingly degrade themselves in the search for approval. This is a story full of compassion and insight.
Cline seeks always to write with originality and freshness. There are wonderful similes such as Evie describing her loneliness as “this absence in me that I could curl around like an animal.” Sometimes this led her astray, though, in her determination to never sound familiar. Take for example, when someone keeps playing a song over and over until she got the words from the first line in her head, “I worked the words around with unspecific effort, like the idle rattle of a lemon drop against the teeth.” That’s original, it’s fresh, but it’s not a great simile. It tries too hard. It interrupted the narrative by prompting me to recall that feeling and compare it to an ear worm.
I know it sounds terribly ungrateful to complain that a writer is too fresh and original, but when the effort shows, when the curtain is drawn back and I am imagining the writer using CTL-F to find every occasion of the word “like” in order to make sure there was not one cliche, not one ordinary phrase, well, that’s just a bit too much of a good thing.
The Girls is an good book, one that held my interest. It had a point, one that it made without being dogmatic or tiresome. I look forward to even more books by Emma Cline as she advances in her career. In a way, Cline reminds me of E. Annie Proulx, another excellent writer who strains the metaphor to a breaking point sometimes. If a debut writer is going to have a problem, being too creative, too original is the one to have.