I’m putting this one aside and may not come back to it. Much praise has been lavished on it, but it has too little narrative thrust for me, and I find that its charm can be overbearing to the point of preciousness.
Guy had been less interesting to the media, just a man doing what men had always done, but the girls were made mythic.
Why have the Manson murders made such a cultural impact, from 1969 to the present? Why do they fascinate us in a country with so many murders (or so much interest in them) there are now entire TV channels dedicated to true crime? One possible explanation is that, along with other events, like Altamont, the murders signaled the ending of an extended summer of love and of the counterculture, or showed us their dark underbelly, what happens when love is too devoted and social justice motivations are twisted. Another possibility is the unforgettable, crazed face of Manson himself.
But really, it’s the girls.
How could so many girls be held in such thrall as to murder on command? How could they kill a beautiful, young, pregnant starlet? Young women make familiar victims. When they become victimizers, it puzzles, shocks, and disturbs, as if rabbits suddenly turned into predators instead of prey. As the quote above mentions, a man killing is nothing new. A woman killing…unnatural, we think.
A strength of Emma Cline’s The Girls is that, though the girls flock around the Manson-like figure of Russell, it’s really the protagonist’s relationship with one of them, Suzanne, that takes center stage. As she notes of her meetings with Russell, I was eager for our encounters, eager to cement my place among them, as if doing what Suzanne did was a way of being with her.
First, what this book isn’t. It isn’t an omniscient picture of a Manson Family-like group or of the fictionalized murders, though certainly you get an idea of the former through the lens of the first-person narrator, Evie, who is a temporary fixture at their farm. Evie learns the details of the murders through the media, like everyone else, but we’re only given snapshots, disturbing but not too graphic. If you want a play-by-play of the real thing with gory details, google it or read Helter Skelter. That’s not this novel’s focus or raison d’etre.
It’s also not a sweeping portrait of America in the ’60s. I’ve seen some readers complaining that there isn’t enough of this or that, mostly the sorts of things we’ve come to associate with that period whether we lived at that time or not: counterculture, protests, hippies, Vietnam. Those things are mentioned, and Russell preaches love and the ills of money while getting it where he can via the girls, but the book’s not a history lesson (also, many forget that the majority of Americans did not participate in the counterculture or oppose the war in Vietnam). Evie is a fourteen-year-old girl; she’s not oblivious to larger goings-on, but they’re not as important as her feelings and desires and her immediate situation and environment.
If anything, The Girls is a coming of age story. It’s split between Evie as a grown, older woman in the present and as a teenager in 1969, with a focus on the latter. She’s become a caregiver but seems isolated. A run-in with an old friend’s son and his girlfriend dredges up the past and reminds her what it feels like to be paid attention to. Evie comes to realize little has changed when it comes to the dynamics of young men and women, and it’s a lens through which she sees herself in the past (and vice versa, her experiences in the past shedding light on her present observations). Her friend’s son knows she was a part of “that cult,” and his and his girlfriend’s questions prompt her to consider how and why she didn’t become a murderer herself.
As a fourteen year-old, Evie’s life is familiar: she has a best friend, divorced parents, longs for the attentions of her friend’s older brother. A fight with her friend and a disintegrating relationship with her mother (whom Evie blames for the divorce, as so many girls blame their mothers and pardon their fathers) leads her to help one of the girls she’d seen from the farm when they encounter each other at a pharmacy. Evie is immediately drawn to Suzanne; it’s the book’s opening scene. Evie begins spending time at the farm with Suzanne and the others, mostly girls, and eventually is introduced to their charismatic leader, Russell.
What follows mirrors what most know of the Manson Family: drugs, sex, communal living, a man who knows how to play to girls’ insecurities to get what he wants. Russell knows a man from a popular rock band and wants a record deal; Evie becomes a sort of gift or bribe in those efforts, which ultimately fall through and culminate in violence.
Evie knows only so much about the other girls and their backgrounds, including Suzanne. She herself is conscious of her cleanliness and nice neighborhood, where she spends less and less time (her mother thinks she’s with her friend), and of the boarding school she’s being sent to at summer’s end. But she finds some measure of acceptance at the farm, and the feeling of belonging (and Suzanne’s attention) is intoxicating.
I highlighted more passages in this book than in any other e-book I’ve read. Cline has so many smart and revealing observations about girlhood (or girl into womanhood), and her prose is sharp and unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote poetry as well. In terms of her writing style, YMMV (your mileage may vary); I’ve seen some put off by it. I ate it up (in contrast, I couldn’t even finish the sample for Fates and Furies the language was so cloying to me). It’s isn’t overwhelming or flowery, just consistently startling. If you read the opening, you’ll immediately have an idea of the book’s prose and tone and whether or not it appeals to you.
There’s a reason the book’s description references The Virgin Suicides. Like that novel, there appears to be a mystery in need of solving, but there are no pat answers. Instead of the boys’ perspective, as in Suicides, we have that of a young girl who was there. The Girls is clear about how and why Evie became who she is instead of someone else, and it’s a line as fine as a thread, which is the most disturbing of all. The question isn’t “Why those girls?” It’s “Why not me?”