The Girls by Emma Cline review: a debut brimming with intelligence and ideas
Provocative coming-of-age tale inspired by the Manson murders deserves all the hype
Emma Cline: thought-provoking fiction, intuitive and memorable writing
Chatto & Windus
One of the most hyped debuts of the summer is Emma Cline’s The Girls, a provocative and eloquent coming-of-age tale loosely inspired by the Manson family.
As if Charles Manson and his commune of mostly female devotees in 1960s California wasn’t enough of a hook, Cline’s novel also carries the weight of a hefty signing fee. After a bidding war with 12 publishers, The Girls was bought by Random House in 2014 in a three-book deal worth a reported $2 million.
So what constitutes a $2 million debut? With an MFA from Columbia, Cline has published short stories in Tin House and the Paris Review, the latter awarding her its newcomer Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014. The 27-year-old Californian also works as a reader for the New Yorker fiction department. In The Girls, her affinity for storytelling is evident right from the classic opener: “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive.”
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An older woman looks back on her teenage self, reflecting on the summer of 1969 in Sonoma County. Middle-aged Evie Boyd has gone to a friend’s house to recuperate after another failed relationship. There she meets her friend’s obnoxious son Julian and his timid girlfriend Sasha, whose fascination with Evie’s past prompts her to revisit it.
In 1969, 14-year-old Evie is the only child of recently divorced parents, financially secure, emotionally insecure and, as Cline excels in portraying, desperate for admiration and love. The narrative is ostensibly built around a mass murder inspired by the Manson killings, but the book’s real value is in its searing depiction of the world of young women, both in 1960s and contemporary America.
Given freedom to roam by her hippie mother, who seems more interested in finding a new man than watching over her daughter, Evie is drawn to a group of rebellious, grubby-looking older girls one day in a Petaluma park. At their centre is the beautiful and enigmatic Suzanne, who Evie becomes obsessed with and hell-bent on pleasing.
The girls bring her back to their dilapidated commune and leader, the creepy, charismatic Russell Hadrick. A Manson-like figure, Russell’s presence in the book is felt rather than shown. He comes through nonetheless, wielding his absolute power over the women as he espouses free love and no boundaries.
His social theorising, narcissism and failed musical ambitions are all reminiscent of Manson, as are the terrible acts he ultimately orders the girls to carry out on his behalf.
With her need to be noticed and her willingness to give – money, her body, her mind – Evie is an easy target. Cline cleverly puts her in the role of outsider, “the snuffed-out story of the bystander”, which adds reflection and insight but lessens the impact of the murder plot.
The action in later parts is less compelling than Evie’s family life, friendships and development. The murders are seen at a remove and despite the gory details that add suspense along the way – “the boy so disfigured the police weren’t sure of his gender” – the action is anticlimactic, told in a related voice about characters we don’t know.
But there is so much else in this book that readers may not care. This is thought-provoking fiction, intuitive and memorable writing: “How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance”; “how girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”
The details of Evie’s teenage world jump from the page, from her “cropped cotton shirts with Mexican embroidery”, “the bellow of iron of her mother’s period”, “the pleasing hygienic chill of her father’s martinis”, or how she licks batteries with her best friend Connie to feel “one-eighteenth of an orgasm”. Cline’s preoccupation is with how women are objectified and used by society, and by extension men such as Russell, and how their self-esteem is built on this. In these themes, and also in style and voice, there are strong similarities to Curtis Sittenfeld’s bestseller, Prep.
Evie talks about her enjoyment at parading her dog in a charity show, “how vacant I’d felt when it was over, when no one needed to look at me any more”. Elsewhere a feeling of exposure gives her “an anxious pleasure that made me stand straighter”. As a 14-year-old girl, she is “first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction on to the other person”. This is neatly echoed by Sasha’s predicament in the present-day narrative through an excruciating scene that sees Julian bully her into stripping off for his drug-dealing friend.
The Girls is a debut brimming with intelligence and ideas. It is a novel less about murder, more about a deadly desire to be accepted and admired. Buy it for the Manson-esque plot but savour it for its insights.