The Charles Manson killings were a defining moment of the late ‘60’s. I remember learning about them later, as a teenager, with a kind of horrified fascination. Author Emma Cline was also fascinated by Manson, and became fixated on the man and the commune he created. It was this obsession that led to her writing The Girls, a novel that follows the indoctrination of a 14-year-old girl into a Manson-like cult in Northern California in the late 1960’s. Young Evie Boyd is coping with the fallout of her parents’ divorce. Her father has moved in with his new girlfriend, leaving Evie with her distracted mother, who is so set on finding herself that she barely notices Evie anymore. Evie has only one friend, but in clumsy teenage fashion, manages to alienate her. Lonely and bored, Evie is ripe for the picking when the opportunity comes to join “the ranch,” a group of young women who are followers of Russell, a charismatic Manson-like character. The group doesn’t find Evie; she finds them, and she is more than willing to do whatever it takes to find love and acceptance in their midst.
This book is not an emotionally easy read. I have a 14-year-old daughter, so maybe it hit a little too close to home. The constant and casual drug use on the ranch; the sexual favors Evie is asked to perform (and willingly does); the squalor the girls live in; and the neglected little children running around made me heartsick. On the other hand, Cline writes exquisitely. She has such beautiful words to describe such horrible things. Her prose is mesmerizing, even if sometimes it feels like it’s trying a little too hard. And Cline really, really gets what it means to be a girl: the insecurity, the neediness, the desperation to fit in. It’s what enables the commune to exist, and it’s what propels the girls to commit horrible crimes in the end.
This book is one of the most publicized of the summer. Google the author’s name and you’ll get a zillion hits (Cline got a $2 million advance for the book). So I went into reading it with a healthy dose of skepticism, worried that it was just too over-hyped. And it is, a little, but it’s still a tremendously written novel, intelligent, perceptive, and fascinating.