The Girls: A Novel

Image of The Girls
Release Date: 
June 13, 2016
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“rich, well-told, and memorable.”

The Girls, for all its thematic heft, is light on its feet. It’s a snap to read. Once you fall under Emma Cline’s sparking spell, you find yourself gobbling it up in big chunks. Soon, you are rounding the final curve and staring down the homestretch. There is no mushy middle. And then? Well, you may as well go ahead and polish it off.

At that point, you’ll need to know how Evie Boyd avoids what’s coming.

We know what’s coming. Cline sneaks in quick-fire foreshadows of the gory scenes ahead. We know we are dealing with a Charles Manson-esque set-up and Evie, who tells the story looking back over time, looks in the crevices of her own memory for how she was processing the moments and how she, quite literally, got on the bus and found herself enthralled with one Russell Hadrick (Manson) and “the girls” around him.

But Russell doesn’t really show up until the middle act. The first third is focused mostly on young Evie’s ho-hum teenage worldview and her first few interactions with the grimy, weed-puffing cult that lives down at the funky ranch at the end of the dirt road. (For all the time you spend inside 14-year-old Evie Boyd’s head, The Girls could be considered YA. It could also be stocked in historical fiction. Cline is not yet 30 years old. She was born two decades after The Beatles went heavy metal with “Helter Skelter.” Her cultural references are subtle and spot on.)

During the opening of The Girls you realize you are in the hands of confident prose stylist. The wordplay is a touch precious here and a bit forced there, but you know Cline writes with a poet’s heart and a photographer’s eye. Spaghetti is “mossed with cheese.” Evie spots a “creep of tattoos” under a shirt. She compares trail mix to “nutty gravel.” A friend waits for her “patient as a cow.” The prose never sags. Your reading brain feels like it has tapped a fresh spring.

Young Evie is tantalized by the cult but her shift isn’t overnight. And that’s the point. Cline takes her time setting up Evie’s comfortable youth, strange mother, and boarding school future.

“It was an all-girls school, and I’d have to wear a uniform—low-heeled shoes and no makeup, middy blouses threaded with navy ties. It was a holding place, really, enclosed by a stone wall and populated with bland, moon-faced daughters. Camp Fire Girls and Future Teachers shipped off to learn 160 words a minute, shorthand. To make dreamy, overheated promises to one another’s bridesmaids at Royal Hawaiian weddings.”

Cline does not hide the fact that she’s playing with the infamous Manson tale. She moves events from southern to northern California but riffs off Charles Manson, down to Russell’s frustrating attempts to get noticed as a rock star. 

No surprise, Evie drifts into a world of sexual initiations, drugs, stealing, squalor, malnourishment, and grubby subsistence. It’s a long way from reading magazines that urged applying a face mask of avocado and honey as part of a 30-day regimen to get ready for your first day of school. “But this was real, Russell’s gaze, and the flattered sickness in me was so pleasurable, I could barely keep hold of it.”

Evie’s real fixation, however, is another one of the girls, Suzanne Parker, who plays a much more complex role in the entire novel.

The Girls is Cline’s debut full-length fiction. It comes with high expectations, given the two-million dollar advance she reportedly received for this novel, a second, and a collection of short stories. So major magazines have found it necessary to spot the misfires. The New Yorker, in a long review, praised The Girls and then took Cline down a notch.

There are a few head-scratching moments. Evie’s non-involvement in the murder scene is the big question mark. It’s been lingering since page one. Why wasn’t she there? Cline’s plot choice here, to give Evie a quick exit ramp, might have been a bit too easy. But that moment isn’t the focus. Cline’s artistic concern is Evie’s intake, the slow slip-sliding from vapid, vacant upper middle into the land of T-shirt curtains and green potatoes where “everything seemed sticky and a little rotten.”

The Girls focuses mostly on Evie as a fourteen year old but interspersed are sections where she is pondering the events from a couple decades down the road (and observes youthful choices from that perspective). More than once older Evie acknowledges that some aspects of the story are unfathomable. But here and there Evie recalls what it felt like to be around a community with a stated purpose, no matter the living conditions or what were you are asked to do in exchange.

“It suddenly seemed blaringly true. My mother didn’t own me just because she had given birth to me. Sending me to boarding school because the spirit moved her. Maybe this was a better way, even though it seemed alien. To be part of this amorphous group, believing love could come from any direction. So you wouldn’t be disappointed if not enough came from the direction you’d hoped.”

The Girls leaves plenty to discuss. It’s rich, well-told, and memorable. Ignore the hype. Read it as if a good friend handed you a copy and said, “Hey, this was interesting.”