Published by Random House
Publication date: June 14th 2016
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
I wanted them to like me.
Such a simple sentence. Six words, and yet, coming three-fourths of the way through Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls, they hold the key to the entire novel. They are instantly recognizable to any woman with a memory of her teenage years and they define fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, the novel’s narrator. But as simple as they are they are also completely contextual—what would you do to make them like you? If it was 1969 when Evie lived, the choices were very different then they are now, but no less dangerous.
The Girls is modeled after the group of girls who surrounded Charles Manson and murdered nine people for him, but Russell, the leader of this clan, is not the focus of the book. Instead, it is Evie, who seduces with her awkwardness and her intelligence. She lives alone with a mother who is frantically trying to rebuild her life after her father left them. In the fall she’s going to boarding school, so when she sees Suzanne, an older girl who seems to be everything she wants to be—free, uninhibited and answering to no one—Evie finds a way to attract her attention and becomes one of the girls.
Cline doesn’t take long to submerge the reader in the enervating heat of summer at Russell’s ranch. Enhanced by the languor of drugs there is no place to be, nothing to do and no rules, everything Evie longs for. She revels in Suzanne’s fierce and possessive attention, making it that much easier to slip out of the childish boredom of her real life.
It was curious, later, to think how easily I fell into things. If there were drugs around, I did them. You were in the moment—when everything back then happened. We could talk about the moment for hours.
It also leads her to consequences beyond anything conceived by her young mind. On the cusp of dating and boys, filled with romantic yearnings, what she imagined as grown-up freedom becomes something else entirely.
Cline not only invokes the sensory aspects of Evie’s summer; her entire re-creation of an era is extraordinary. I was a pre-teen at the time, but, from the Seventeen articles about honey and avocado face masks to eating frozen Charleston Chews to wishing I was Lauren Hutton she blasted me with a past I experienced but had forgotten. Considering that she was nowhere near even born in 1969 makes the feat feel almost magical.
A deft touch with details is a welcome skill, but the mind meld Cline performs with a lonely, insecure teenager is even more impressive. That Evie can be attracted to girls wearing filthy rags and dumpster diving for rotting food and we understand why is an alchemy not many authors can achieve. The Girls is at turns horrifying in its implications of the desperation for acceptance and understandable in the malleable nature of the young mind. Cline spends the majority of the novel on the summer of 1969 Evie, but opens and closes The Girls with the adult Evie, who has been left wrecked by the desire to be liked. Her simple sentence has been transformed into an anthem, not just of the angsty teen years, but of Evie’s every moment. A wanting that never went away.