The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.

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