Lyrical and deadly, much like its historical inspiration, The Girls unfolds from the memories of a former member of a Manson Family-like cult, Evie. She starts to reminisce about her wayward summer when sharing a beach house with two teenagers who are (understandably) fascinated by her past. By framing her novel this way, Emma Cline casts a light back onto the reader, who undoubtedly shares the morbid fascination with the murderous cult.
So unfolds a story about losing oneself. Cline’s novel becomes an untraditional ‘coming-of-age’ where innocence isn’t so much lost as it is slowly siphoned away by a calculating predator. She peels away the gritty, movie-like glamor with which many see the Manson family and often narrows in on banal details: the food they were eating, the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the rooms, sleeping arrangments.
Cline resists the urge to make our protagonist a sticky sweet ingenue who deserves our pity and instead paints a more nuanced picture of a girl without roots. Rather than fall into the thrall of the Charles Mason-like-leader (dubbed Russell) she is under the spell of the enigmatic and seemingly carefree women who surround him. Reading the book, I recalled a long-rehashed conversation from my college days, in which a guy friend wondered aloud about women’s fashion, pointing out that it took very little in the way of fashion prowess to impress men. This prompted a lively debate. Women didn’t get dressed to impress men, the girls of the group insisted, they got dressed to impress other women. To date, I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. Who better to accept judgment from than a group of our peers?
Despite its grisly inspiration, The Girls never waded quite as deep as I’d wanted it to. The real Manson, in addition to being charming, was also sadistic and vicious; this is never fully explored. Nor so are child neglect and the cruelty of his followers. But that Cline captures an enigmatic world and weaves transfixing tale, there can be no doubt.