Okay—here’s the thing: This book won all sorts of awards and I think I put it on my audiobook list because I saw it recommended everywhere. But here’s what bothers me: It’s a fictional portrayal of a fictional girl who was a satellite member of a fictional Manson family, but it borrows almost every detail from the real Manson family so…why bother with the fictional names for everyone and everything? Just make it straight up historical fiction at that point. I don’t know, maybe this wouldn’t bother other people as much, but to me it’s a “walks like a duck/talks like a duck” situation, and if you’re going to borrow SO much truth to create fiction, it seems like it’s cheating to make it seem like a purely creative project.
For the specific plot, this book follows a teenage Evie Boyd during one summer in California in 1969, plus some chapters that feature an older, wiser Evie who is living in the home of a friend while she’s between jobs. During the 1969 summer, Evie has a falling out with her best and only friend and is devastated by the prospect of facing an entire summer with no one to hang out with and nothing to distract her from the drama going on at home. Her parents are divorced, and her somewhat neurotic, very wealthy mother is dating a new man who Evie believes to be a loser. Her father is re-married to a very beautiful but much younger woman. While idly shopping at a corner store, Evie witnesses the shop owner kick out a beautiful girl who he accuses of having shoplifted, along with her friends, in the past. Evie goes out to the parking lot to meet the girl, who she learns is named Suzanne, and gives her the toilet paper she was trying to buy before she was kicked out. Suzanne thanks her, and the next time she sees her around town, invites Evie up to “the ranch” where Suzanne’s “friends” hang out. It’s here that Evie meets “the family” and where the book starts to borrow heavily from reality.
“The ranch” is a ramshackle farm house out in the remote California desert. Just like the ranch where the true Manson family stayed, it was actually owned by some old man who was too old to maintain the property anymore, so the family just kind of moved in. It’s dirty, run-down and full of broken-down cars (in real life many of those cars were stolen—one reason many members of the family were arrested before they were even connected to the Tate murders). In the book, the charismatic “leader” of the group is named Russell. Like Manson, he is described as short but masculine, with lots of hair, and he frequently wears buckskin pants and shirts. Also like Manson, Russell is a wanna-be musician and has a “famous friend”—in the book named Mitch, but quite obviously a fictional version of Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boy brother who in real life was friends with Manson. Also like the Manson family, the ranch is almost exclusively populated by girls—girls who are all enamored with (and sleeping with) Russell, who spews a lot of metaphysical/Scientology-based/yoga-master bullshit to get the girls to do anything he says. Russell, and by proxy the girls, are all hyper focused on Mitch hooking them up with a recording contract so they can deliver Russell’s oh-mazing music to the world. As happened in real life, when the recording contract doesn’t come to fruition, it sparks the group to commit a grisly and violent murder that catapults them to fame but also ultimately destroys them.
(In case you don’t know the true story: Charles Manson believed he had some kind of psychic connection with The Beatles. When their White Album came out, he believed it was a message to him and his followers that a great race war was about to begin. Manson believed he had to answer the album with one of his own as the final step to spark the war. The war was supposed to pit black people against white people, and all the white people were expected to die. Manson believed that black people were incapable of governing themselves or building a society on their own, so he and his followers were to hide out in the desert during the war, then emerge when all the other white people had been killed, and the remaining black people would rejoice that Manson and his family were there to lead them, thus allowing Manson to literally take over the world. When Dennis Wilson bailed on the recording contract, Manson became desperate and sent his people to go murder some rich white people because he assumed people would think that black people had committed the murder, and that would spark the war instead of his album).
As far as this book goes, it mostly follows as the extremely lonely and low self-esteem Evie pads after Suzanne and develops a rather significant crush on her, all while the goings on at the cult start to take dark and dangerous turns. Evie, for the most part, really stays out of any of the trouble. There are several scenes that depict molestation, rape and sexual assault, although none are violent (it’s the typical cult “we’re all doing it!” type of thing) as well as some significant drug use. I think, maybe, I’m just too into true crime to dig this book. I also could not figure out what I was supposed to be taking away from the older-Evie chapters. During those she is staying at a friend’s house, and her friend’s son, a drug dealer, shows up with his girlfriend and the trio sit around and have some conversations that are super uncomfortable. The son immediately recognizes her as “that girl who was in the cult!” although by the end this doesn’t make any sense to me. I dunno. Maybe I just missed the point here?