It’s 1969, and 14 year old Evie is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Her parents have divorced and she lives with her early middle aged mother who is out on a self-search quest full of enemas, wheatgrass and horoscopes. Evie underperforms at school and is set to go to boarding school after the summer, and she spends her summer hanging around with her one true friend, whom she dislikes, obsessively reading magazines and following their hammy beauty routines. Evie is obsessed with boys, though mostly because her culture tells her that that’s who she should be obsessed with. One day, in the park, she meets a group of girls, dressed in dirty rags, cheerfully pilfering dumpsters behind restaurants, and she immediately feels an attraction to Suzanne, their leader. It doesn’t take long for Evie to end up at the run-down ranch where Suzanne lives with her friends under the auspices of vaguely new-age hippie Russel.
Russell is Charles Manson, by the way. I assume Suzanne is meant to be Susan Atkins. Cline doesn’t exactly shy away from the comparison, and the book starts with a description of the murder that the girls commit, though instead of Roman Polanski’s wife and unborn child being slaughtered, it’s now a singer’s ex-girlfriend and their five year old son. The harrowing descriptions are pretty hard to stomach. I’m not sure why Cline copies the Manson lore so closely. Perhaps because the story is already outrageous enough without further embellishment.
The Girls is a pretty heavy-handed novel at times. Evie struggles with life, both because being a teenager sucks in general and because life in the late sixties and most of the seventies particularly sucked for girls and women. All she wants is to be noticed, yet she’s invisible to the adults in her life. She craves the attention of boys, but doesn’t know how to get it or even why she wants it. Russell is new to her. He exudes confidence, he makes her feel seen. He refuses to participate in the world that ignores Evie. It’s not hard to understand why she falls for him, though the world he has created for his girls is rancid and filthy. Russell is full of talk about the evils of society and how they are breaking free of its bonds, and Evie finds herself relieved from caring about the frivolous things her magazines tell her to care about. It can be hard to read at times; we know the direction in which Russell and his girls will go, and we know how wrong it is for a grown man to have sex with a vulnerable teenager, even if Evie doesn’t see the problem herself.
The novel isn’t perfect; Russell’s philosophy is never really properly explored and the group’s turning point conveniently happens after Evie’s been shipped off to her father for a few weeks. The novel is told through flashbacks; present-day Evie, still as invisible as ever, never really materialises properly. It is, however, an evocative reminder of how tough teenage girls can have it in the world, and how easy it can be to fall in with a bad crowd when the good crowd isn’t necessarily any better. In that sense, it’s poignant, and the prose is beautiful, but it did leave me with a bitter aftertaste.