image courtesy: http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/emma-clines-masterful-manson-family-novel-debut.html
The first question one might ask themselves about Emma Cline’s debut novel ‘The Girls,’ is, is this a historical novel? I would argue that for a book to be considered historical it must meet at least two criteria: first, its primary story arc must occur in a period of historical significance, and second, it must prominently feature aspects of cultural significance specific to that time. Taking place in the late 1960s, ‘The Girls’ meets the former, but not the latter, as many defining features of that period, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and iconic artists such as Jimmy Hendrix and the Rolling Stones are mentioned either not at all, or only passing. ‘The Girls,’ therefore should not be considered historical. Instead, I would technically qualify this as a literary thriller, though its capacity to thrill, as-well-as its literary merits is a subject of debate.
Evie, the narrator, having squandered her grandmother’s estate over ten years ago, works as a live-in aide. Currently out of work, a friend invites her to stay in his home on the California coast while he is away. One night, Julian, her friend’s college dropout son, and his girlfriend Sasha show up. After Julian makes a few off-handed remarks about Evie’s involvement with a Mansonesque cult in her youth, she recalls the summer of 1969. Then fifteen, Evie’s parents have recently divorced after her father has an affair with a young employee at his company. Evie’s mother, now half-reluctantly clutching onto feminism, announces to Evie she will be sending her to boarding school in the autumn, thinking it will reign in the girl’s rambunctious behavior. Evie is voracious for a respite from suburban tedium, and through a series of convenient coincidences, finds herself in the company of three liberated young women who speak rapturously about their leader, Russell. While Evie soon assumes the guise of a cultist, growing her hair long and wearing dirty clothes, she never fully succumbs to Russell’s charms, only involving herself with the group so as to remain close to Suzanne, Russel’s apparent favorite.
While Cline’s premise is fascinating, she limits its potential by only exploring it through Evie’s eye. Evie never becomes fully immersed in the cult’s environment, her interest in it seems almost casual. Evie steals money from her mother’s purse to give to Suzanne, then later she and the girls break into her neighbor’s house – without stealing anything. These actions seem more mischevious than malicious. Evie makes frequent reference to the brutal murder which gave the cult its infamy, but while driving to the crime scene, Suzanne suddenly tells her to get out of the car and leaves her on the side of the road, thus ending Evie’s time with the cult. A short while later, she is attending boarding school, where her experiences do not appear to have any palpable effect on her personality, either then, or when Evie recalls them as an old woman. Because of this, one can’s help but wonder exactly what is so important about the cult. Had Cline provide an additional narrative voice – such as Suzanne’s – to provide a richer picture of the cult so as to make it a plot point and not just a backdrop.
While lacking in narrative heft, one area in-which ‘The Girls’ excels is in how it illustrates the traumas and disappointments intrinsic to coming of age as a girl. The most thematically captivating scenes in the novel are the interactions between the male and female characters: Evie trying to impress her best friend’s older brother, one of the girls in the cult being struck in the face by Russell, Julian forcing Sasha to expose her breasts to his friend. At one point Russel sends Evie and Suzanne to the home of Mitch, a famous musician whom Russel is trying to coerce into giving him a record deal. Suzanne pressures Evie into group sex with Mitch, saying that he’ll be gentle, which causes Evie to think ‘As though that would make it better.” Evie’s choice to involve herself with the cult is representative of how a girl her age will pursue relationships – romantic, sexual, or otherwise – with people who are not necessarily conducive to their well-being as an act of rebellion. Ironically, such attempted expressions of autonomy often result in states of subservience, where girls will forsake their own senses of individuality and self-preservation so as to better please their men in their lives; in these cases, girls attach themselves to male (or female) figures, because they represent an authority separate from their parents.
Despite its many flaws, ‘The Girls’ should be seen as the beginning of what will surely be an impressive career from an author of superb intelligence and creativity. Her voice is both touchingly sensitive, and unflinchingly honest.