In 1969 California, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd is drifting aimlessly through her last summer before being shipped off to a boarding school at her newly-divorced mother’s insistence. Her father is shacking up with his secretary in a Palo Alto apartment and Evie’s best friend Connie is starting to get annoyed at Evie’s pathetic crush on her brother. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s in a vulnerable position, which perhaps explains why her chance run-in with Suzanne Parker affects her so deeply. Suzanne is nineteen, a lithe brunette with a mysterious aura about her, and Evie is entranced. When she sees Suzanne a second time, Evie contrives to join her and her friends without a thought to the consequences, or to her mother waiting at home.
It turns out that Suzanne and her friends all live at a dilapidated ranch, in a commune run by an oddly charming lunatic desperate to find fame as a recording artist. This is probably starting to sound pretty familiar. Except for the names (Charles Manson becomes Russell Hadrick, for example) and certain details, this is pretty much just the story of the Manson family. Emma Cline gets to have it both ways: she gets to use the reader’s knowledge of the Manson murders to heighten the tension while also remaining free to fictionalize anything she wants.
The story of that summer is relayed by present-day Evie, also drifting aimlessly, this time between jobs as a home health aide. She’s house-sitting for an old friend when the man’s son arrives unexpectedly, with a suspiciously young girlfriend in tow. Seeing the dynamic between the young lovers makes Evie uncomfortable, as it reminds her of how desperate she was for approval and attention.
Whereas the rest of the Girls were desperate for Russell’s attention, Evie herself was desperate to be seen by Suzanne. Cline resists labeling the nature of Evie’s feelings for Suzanne, making it seem like something that goes beyond our normal notions of attraction. Cline, and by extension Evie, also resists delving into the queasiness occasioned by Evie being only fourteen, surrounded by people who don’t seem to care too much about the legality or morality of their actions.
The major theme of The Girls is also an unanswerable question: How could these girls fall for it? How could they find themselves under the spell of an obvious maniac to the extent that they were willing to commit inhuman crimes just because he asked? Though the events of the novel contrive to keep Evie away from the atrocities themselves, she too is left in an uncomfortable position. She’ll never know what she would’ve done if she’d been there.
There is a lot to admire about The Girls. Cline is clearly a talented writer with a unique perspective on life. Yet there is a lack of resolution that renders The Girls less satisfying than it could be. Though we see Evie in both the distant past and the present, there isn’t enough in the book connecting the two. Cline doesn’t address how her connection to a horrific crime affected Evie’s life, giving this reader the sense that she didn’t know. Perhaps that’s more true to life, but it’s unsettling in a work of fiction.