On the surface, The Girls, by Emma Cline, appears to be about a Manson-like figure in Northern California in the 1960s. The leader of a small, communal living group, Russell taught his small group of followers “to discover a path to truth, how to free their real selves from where it was coiled inside them.” The group consists mostly of women, and mostly of young women, who felt that being around Russell was “like a natural high… Like the sun or something. That big and right.”
However, the focus of the book is not on Russell. For both the book, and the main character, Evie, the focus is on the girls. Both the girls that Russell surrounds himself with and on girls in general.
We meet Evie Boyd at the age of fourteen. She is small for her age, the child of divorced parents whose mother is reinventing herself and whose father is living with a much younger woman. With her best friend, Connie, Evie works hard to be worthy of attention. And of affection. As she says, “Sometimes I wanted to be touched so badly I was scraped by longing.”
Although the draw for most of the girls on the ranch is Russell, the draw for Evie is the girls themselves. She admires their slim, tan arms and long thick hair (Russel doesn’t allow them to cut it). She admires how they share chores, and Russell, and clothes, and even kids. To Evie, it made sense to “be part of this amorphous group, believing love could come from any direction. So you wouldn’t be disappointed if not enough came from the direction you’d hoped.”
The biggest attraction for Evie though is Suzanne, who had a face that “could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.” It was Suzanne who, for Evie, epitomized the lifestyle lived at the ranch. And it was Suzanne, who, eventually brought Evie to the ranch, and brought her to Russell.
Eventually, like Manson, Russell incites his followers to violence. And as everyone wonders how the girls could possibly do such a thing, why they didn’t leave the ranch when things got bad, Evie know it’s because being under Russell’s influence stopped the girls from being able to make certain judgments. And that they didn’t have far to fall to get to that point as “just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.”
This book was not what I expected, but was, I think, even better for that. Definitely one I recommend.