Emma Cline offers a fresh take on an old story in “The Girls,” a debut novel about a Manson family-like cult in northern California.
Most of the novel is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Evie Boyd, the granddaughter of a famous film actress living in Petaluma, Calif., in the summer of 1969.
Bored with her mother’s dreary boyfriends and hippie health schemes, Evie latches onto Suzanne, a 19-year-old hard-eyed, cool-edged beauty who moves through the world with a cohort of female friends as “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.”
Suzanne soon brings Evie to “the ranch,” a sleepy hippie commune where they live with Russell, a mediocre musician and first-rate manipulator. Like Charles Manson, Russell is magnetic and charismatic, able to attract a harem of devotees with his vision of fame and free love. And like Manson, he mostly keeps his hands clean, sending the girls out to do his (criminal) bidding.
But Cline keeps Russell at the periphery, denying him the kind of fetishized Svengali power long attributed to cult leaders. Although the girls at the ranch covet his attention — most girls, Cline writes, learn early on that “life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you” — they largely lean on one another for the love and connection they need.
“They’d passed into a familial contract,” Evie observes jealously. “They were sure of what they were together.”
That bond sustains Evie even as she starts to notice the cracks in the utopian ideal.
Penniless, the girls are forced to steal toilet paper and dumpster dive for food. A solstice “feast” is little more than psychedelic drugs, rot-slit fruit and green potatoes.
But to Evie, greedy for something more than the surface sheen of her parents’ theme parties, even hardship seems glamorous. She feeds on Suzanne’s brazen authenticity: uncovered pimples, soil-stained hems, ankles “gruff” with stubble. The denizens of the ranch offer Evie a refuge from an appearance-obsessed world.
In its place grows something darker: the idea that someone — one man — could look at her body and cut through to the heart and intentions underneath.
Cline, 27, is already a master stylist. Each page of “The Girls” is laced with startling images, each sentence dressed with meticulous verbs. We smell breath “notched” with liquor, hear words “slit” with desire, see spaghetti “mossed” with cheese.
That vivid language draws us into Evie’s world, allowing us to see the ranch through her bewildered, drug-heightened perspective. But Cline bucks restraint: at times, the language overshadows Evie’s emotions and her voice rings false. A few too many paragraphs contain clumps of overworked prose, abstract similes clinging to each another like dryer sheets.
Cline’s most searing passages tap into the emotional carousel of adolescence: impotence, humiliation and bratty hatred, repeated and remixed. In one of the book’s most unsettling scenes, Evie bullies her way into a young neighbor’s house, thrilling at a power she’s never before felt — a power she only distantly recognizes as Suzanne’s.
And although Evie leaves the ranch before the murders begin (this isn’t a spoiler; Cline telegraphs the tragedy in the novel’s opening pages), she lives with a - anxiety that “maybe I would have done something, too. Maybe it would have been easy.”
So thorough is Cline’s grasp on teenage Evie that the book’s flash-forwards to Evie as an adult feel desultory in comparison. It’s a smart plot contrivance — an older/wiser Evie meets a young woman with a familiar hunger to be loved — but the contemporary scenes lack bite. Evie no longer seems to have much at stake. Her insights as an older woman are detached, almost dreamlike.
Instead, the present-day scenes function as another test of Cline’s thesis: When men exert power, women develop strength. This isn’t a feminist platitude so much as a toxic confession. Throughout the novel, Cline expertly plumbs gender politics to reveal the scrabbling need of girlhood, the learned ache to be noticed and named.
Evie finds fulfillment not in Russell, but Suzanne. We find it in the pages of Cline’s arresting, propulsive debut.
Reach Liz Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Girls” by Emma Cline (355 pages; Random House; $27)