Emma Cline’s best-selling historical novel The Girls is set in 1969, when a group of followers of the hippie Svengali Charles Manson, mostly young women, invaded the home of Sharon Tate, the actress wife of film director Roman Polanski. No one will have forgotten the massacre of the pregnant Tate and several friends, and the next night, of a couple in their suburban Los Angeles ranch house. Cline has changed the names, and relocated the Manson farm and the scene of the murders from Southern California to the small, arty, rural California community of Petaluma in the farm belt of Northern California, and mostly spares us grisly details. Her object is not to revisit Manson but to illumine the lives of adolescent girls, incidentally portraying some things about California that haven’t changed since then.
The novel is mostly told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, a nice, inexperienced, upper-middle-class California adolescent, during the summer before she’s to go off to boarding school. “I was an average girl, and that was the biggest disappointment of all” to her well-meaning parents. Divorced and distracted, they more or less don’t notice that she has drifted into the company of some very bad kids. Evie lies to her mother that she’s spending a lot of time with her tame friend Connie, but she has really been taken up by some strange girls she’s met in the park, and it’s their acceptance that she yearns for.
These girls, whom Evie sees as wonderfully liberated, live at a ramshackle ranch, and are in turn in thrall to an older, Manson-like figure named Russell, who controls them, has sex with them all, and makes them do the stealing and swindling for the bare-bones sustenance they share. Evie buys into the mythology of this scene, that Russell is a genius who will soon have a big recording contract, but it is his main girlfriend, Suzanne, to whom she is most drawn, enchanted by the older girl’s defiant freedom and self-confidence. As Evie sees it, Suzanne’s “face answered all its own questions,” whereas she sees her own face “blatant with need, like an orphan’s empty dish.” Cline has a lovely gift for the apt simile, and the book teems with startling description—one sometimes has a sense that some stern editor probably made her rein in her headlong gift for figures of speech, but the abundance that’s left is often wonderful.
Evie begins to spend more time at the ranch, riding her bike out there, hanging around, going along with the strange, druggy doings, simultaneously judgmental and drawn in. When she isn’t there, Suzanne seems to her “like a soldier’s hometown sweetheart, made gauzy and perfect by distance.” The well-managed but complicated chronology shifts between Evie’s fourteen-year-old perceptions…
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