I started the Summer Reading Challenge with a book I was extremely eager to read: The Girls, by Emma Cline. This novel has been getting a huge amount of press, and rightly so, even if many of the reviewers have sounded as if they’d been eating sour grapes. Cline’s writing is breathtaking, and the story is deeply compelling, especially for those of us superannuated folks who actually remember the ’60’s and the deep sense of paranoid fear–often reasonable, especially around the question of drugs and cults– that pervaded life back then. It is easy to see how these critics are jealous of Cline’s meteoric rise and the reputed two million dollar advance she got for this, her very first novel.
The Girls is a fictionalized rendering of the Manson murders, told from the point of view of a young woman, Evie Boyd, who becomes involved with a loosely organized band of drifters held together by the mesmerizing attraction of its leader, Russell. Evie is at the stage in her life that she desperately needs to have a sense of self. Her parents are divorcing, her best friend has snubbed her, and she is about to go off to an all-girls boarding school in the fall. She is seeking significance, meaning, and the attention of anybody who can lead her to who she feels she needs to be. Evie accidentally catches sight of a group of women who are part of Russell’s entourage, living in a black-painted schools and diving in dumpsters for discarded food. She is instantly take with Suzanne, the woman closest to Russell, and the way Suzanne seems to exude freedom from how others might judge her. Suzanne takes what she wants, leads a life outside society together with this group of women who are part sisters and part rivals for Russell’s attention. Of course there are lots of drugs and lots of sex. But Suzanne knows how to manipulate people, and Evie is ripe for manipulation. Evie begins to spend days at the squalid ranch where Russell and the girls live, stealing money from her mother’s purse in order to insure that she is accepted, and she feels as if she is emerging transformed into a new kind of self, unconstrained by rules of any sort. She has chosen this group of girls, the bad girls, instead of the bland girls of her own youth.
It is very easy to imagine the horrific nature of the Manson murders, and Cline treads very lightly on the graphic nature of the crimes, choosing to reveal the immense brutality of the scene at the end of the novel in a few gripping details. The reader, of course, knows what’s coming, and so Cline so carefully builds the tension of the plot through her evocative writing that the reader doesn’t mind knowing how it will all end. Here’s a sample: “She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited–embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realize that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed. (p.18).
And yet, it is not revealing too much to note that Evie (and her name is significant: “Eve,” the first woman) is not allowed to go with Suzanne and the girls on the night of the murder. Suzanne kicks Evie off the bus that is en route to the scene, knowing that this is an act of immense kindness in sparing Evie the experience of what they were about to do. Evie takes this as a rejection, and even though she escapes the inevitable outcome of the crimes, she is never the same. She feels as if she missed achieving some purpose in her life, even if it would have been participating in this gruesome murder. And the novel is narrated retrospectively, at the point at which Evie has missed many opportunities for a good and decent life. She is unemployed, having only been able to find work previously as a temporary home health aide, and finds it impossible to connect to people. She is drifting through her life, tethered to this narrative in which she does not even appear.
There is a real sense of sadness in The Girls, and the feeling that women in the ’60’s were only reflected by the notoriety of the men in their lives–for better or for worse. And that finding one’s way in the world as a woman who has escaped a terrible fate is almost impossible–women are still so often objectified and are actually complicit in their own objectification. Not much has changed. And yet, Evie is trying. Her life is out of the limelight, drab, meaningless in being attached to a notorious past only in a peripheral way, but perhaps this is the most meaningful kind of life that there is.
This is an excellent read, hard to put down.