Review of Emma Cline's 'The Girls' by J. Johnson Higgins
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
Title: The Girls: A Novel
Author: Emma Cline
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Random House
Where can you find this book?
Everywhere and in multiple formats
In Northern California in the 1960s, a young teenager name Evie Boyd happens to see a group of girls passing through the park. She is instantly fascinated by how unique and unrefined they seem to be; a contrast to her existence—and everyone else around her for that matter. They are part of a co-culture commune but Evie doesn’t know this at the time. She is particularly drawn to the girl with black hair named Suzanne, a dominant figure to the group and something of a lieutenant to the group’s true leader, Russell. Feeling alienated and lost regarding her family and increasingly distant from her friends, Evie works to find Suzanne again, befriend her, and earn her approval. What she does not know is that the group will one day become infamously associated with brutal violence and murder.
The Girls is told in the first-person—from Evie’s perspective—and from a point in time well after the violence has occurred. Much of the story is Evie recalling her life leading up to the incident, noting that, in retrospect, some of the experiences could have been regarded as warning signs. She explains that in her naïve youth, where she was genuinely enjoying new thrills and believing that she was connecting with others, she did not heed those warnings.
The novel is inspired by the Manson Family murders but I want to stress that this is not that story, and that it is its own unique work of fiction.
How did I hear about it? Where did I get it? Why did I review it?
I first heard about The Girls from an interview with the author, when I was in my car listening to the radio [Here is that interview]. I found it intriguing that the story is not as much about the cult’s leader, like we typically see, and is more about the other people in it—the ones who, in my mind, never seem to really think of themselves as being in a cult; the messy part of it that usually doesn’t make sense to outside observers. I must have mentioned the book being on my to-read list several times because I ended up getting a copy as a gift much later and finally read it. The book left such an impression that, months later, I decided to review it too.
My First Impressions
The prologue and first several chapters give a pretty solid sketch of what it is that the protagonist is drawn to in the group of girls. I’d like to say that, on some level, we’ve all been there at some point in our lives but perhaps at varying levels. It’s that point where we wouldn’t mind burning a bridge or two or building some new ones, if it means that we’ll start to feel like we matter in this world. Then suddenly, we experience a shift or something that stirs us, like finding some new and interesting friends who acknowledge us. We go along with them, even if they go out-of-bounds compared to where we’re used to going. Our worldview changes and we learn more about ourselves in 3 days than in the last 3 years. It’s those points where we impulsively say “yes” to things without reviewing for the potential dangers. I can relate to that basic feeling and Cline taps into it effectively in order to demonstrate that those inflection points could lead us to either the best or the worst of outcomes; also, maybe a little of both.
I remain interested in the story throughout, largely because I know that the situation is about to get really dark and that the Manson-esque murders are close at hand. This is well-known the moment you open the book or even read the dust jacket; not a spoiler. The focus is more experiential: how this commune gradually crosses the line to become a murderous cult, where is Evie as this happens, how involved is she, how does she dodge this bullet, and what is her reaction?
What I enjoy the most about The Girls is the vivid interaction between Evie and Suzanne throughout the story. It seems real to me. I could clearly see the verbal and non-verbal communication between the characters in my head. Despite Suzanne being a wretched and dangerous human being for many of her actions (including the big one), the author convincingly allows me to see multiple sides of her and to believe that she is also oddly beautiful and protective of Evie all at the same time. I began to ask myself: “am I a little crazy myself for kind of liking Suzanne?” It’s a weird feeling. Evie more or less asks herself the same types of questions day after day following the events. In my opinion as both an avid reader and a writer, this is a sign of strong character development. It is a dysfunctional interaction but a genuine one that shouldn’t be overlooked.
I recommend The Girls whether you’re interested cults, not-so interested cults but you are looking for something different than your usual choice, or just want to explore fresh prose from a newer author. This is Emma Cline’s debut novel, by the way.