Emma Cline’s book The Girls is set in present day, and also at during the hippie days of 1967 in San Francisco. There (in the past), we meet our narrator Evie. Evie, is a fourteen year old who is bored, seems to pretty much hate her best friend but can’t quite shake her (since they’ve been friends forever) and, waiting for the world to unveil its secrets to her. It’s the laughter of “the girls” that opens her eyes to the possibilities around her, and the gorgeous dark hair, tanned skin of the bold leader of the group–Suzanne. These girls are all living on a commune (a dump) with a charismatic and godlike leader– Russell. It’s clear that Suzanne (and the other girls, though not quite as much) worship Russell…Evie is drawn in as if there’s a siren’s song…but it’s not Russell that draws her in, it’s Suzanne.Evie passes test after test of loyalty to Russell’s cult in the effort to stay near Suzanne. As her home life crumbles, she builds a new family, one that she fully relies on and feels invaluable to.
This was supposed to be closely mirroring the “Manson Family” and the murders that they are most famous for. It was also supposed to take the focus off of the leader leader (Russell/Charles Manson) and focus on the women who actually committed the crimes and the charisma surround them. In the real life aspect, men with money were lured out to help fund Manson’s camp and plans with promises of sex and drugs. The girls were instrumental in making Manson’s vision “work”; this is the case as well in The Girls. Russel, is nothing without them, especially Suzanne. With Evie coming and going back and forth to the compound (a really gross dump, let me reiterate that), the author allows Evie to be unsullied. She’s following the girl that she loves but she’s not truly a part of them (partially because of her age, her involvement, and maybe her sanity level?). Ultimately, she forever remains separate from them, perhaps because Suzanne loves her (saving her) or perhaps because Suzanne knew that Evie didn’t have what it took to be one of them. It’s interesting that since the story is told in flashback, we get a sense of longing from Evie even though she had been cleared of all crimes years prior but the girls, her friends from years before…were not. Does she long to be with Suzanne? Does she long to have helped murder an innocent group of people (including a child)?
The book was pretty good enough, but really lacked a lot of depth. While I understand that the focus was supposed to be on the girls, there was NOTHING that made me think that Russell was all that charismatic and wonderful. That could’ve been the point (because I don’t really know what made Manson so charismatic either) but I wanted to see what the girls were seeing. I went in expecting a lot more than a coming of age book but as I get a few days removed from it, I can’t help thinking that our author wanted to write historical fiction but didn’t go all in. This is a bit of a shame because I think it could’ve really captured more of the craziness, the rapture, and the promises that Russell (and more realistically Manson) brought to the table.