The Girls by Emma Cline
Random House, 2016; 368 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
The Girls, the debut novel from Emma Cline, is eerie and engrossing in its reimagining of the Manson Family. Cline's novel is primarily set in the summer of 1969 and told by 14-year-old Evie, a bored, upper-class teenager living in Northern California. The story kicks off after Evie becomes infatuated with Suzanne, a rugged and beautiful woman involved in a cult stationed not far from Evie's town. Through that infatuation, Evie quickly finds herself affiliated with the Manson-like cult led by a failing musician named Russell. During Evie's time with the cult, she observes the women, learning about family, sex, and violence as the cult members navigate their slowly unraveling realities. Evie participates, too. At first, by shoplifting, and, later, through sex and by doing chores around the cult's dilapidated, dusty ranch.
Heralded by many critics as the must-read of the summer, Cline's novel features a fresh take on the “female gaze” (as noted by NPR), but also brims with interesting, captivating prose. For instance, Cline's novel is packed with similes that pulsate and bring life to the page: “Giving me a look as mild as a glass of milk” or “My mother was giddy and a little drunk, as if life were a world where nuggets of gold were hidden in streambeds or clustered at cliff bases, picked off as easily as peaches.” Cline's also deft at making the mundane seem strange and suspicious. When Evie and Suzanne meet, exchange names and shake hands, Evie notes: “I stuck out my hand. Suzanne laughed in a way that made me understand shaking hands was the wrong thing to do, a hollow symbol from the straight world.”
Ultimately, the novel reaches a gruesome climax. However, through our journey with Evie a bond is formed between her perspective and the reader. By the end of Emma Cline's The Girls, there is a sense that we should empathize with Evie as well as the cult members despite their arrogance and inhumanity because they were lost, lonely people with dreams of liberation and love.