Drawing on the events of the late sixties, author Emma Cline reimagines the summer of 1969 in a coming-of-age novel that bumps up against the ideals of the time and a young girl’s involvement in a deadly California commune.
The Girls debuted in June to big fan fare. The first of a reported seven figure, three-book deal, Cline proved her merits as an emerging writer by winning The Paris Review’s 2014 Plimpton Prize. Before The Girls hit shelves—which Cline wrote in approximately three months—the novel was a success among reviewers, who applauded the young writer for her work on the sentence level. Even the difficult-to-please James Wood referred to Cline in the The New Yorker as, “a talented stylist.” He writes: “At her frequent best, Cline sees the world exactly and generously.”
In fact, Cline’s dazzling sentences are what stand out most in this confident debut—her ability to unpack a narrator’s emotions is among her greatest skills. “I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.”
The novel is narrated by middle-aged Evie Boyd, who recounts the summer she was fourteen when a series of missteps (generated largely by boredom and teenage angst) resulted in her participation in a Manson-like cult. Cline’s razor-sharp detailing of the past makes this narration immediate and urgent, granting readers access to Evie’s interior with dazzling clarity. Yet, a mystery remains. As Evie revisits the events that led to her involvement in the commune, her look back is an attempt at discovery. The central question being: how could such a typical childhood allow for such atypical results?
There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts never begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline: an insistence that they notice a strange quality to the sunlight that morning or excessive static in their sheets . . . As if the presentiment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before. Did I miss some sign? Some internal twinge?
The most obvious solution lies in the ideals of the late sixties and early seventies. But while sentiments of the time propel many of the characters in The Girls forward—and offer important context to the commune—the novel remains, at its core, about a young girl looking for a way to define herself. In this way, the book avoids being a period piece and instead feels like a fresh examination of self-discovery.
Nearly all the female characters in The Girls focus on the affection of men, and in this way male characters occupy a false epicenter in the novel. Evie, her mother, even the other women at the ranch, hover around, and try to make themselves valuable to, men. “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will get it.” But the power of the story and the driving force behind Evie’s growth lies in her relationships with women: her flawed friendships back home and her obsession with Suzanne—the dark-haired beauty whose affections and personal freedom captivate Evie at the start, and who serves as Evie’s gateway to the Manson-like ranch.
In 1969, women understood they could occupy, and had right to, a larger world stage, but they still fought to live in a society that assigned value through the male gaze. The Girls follows Evie’s coming-of-age story with this idea as its backbone. In both the past and present tense of the novel, this notion bubbles to the surface: “I waited to be told what was good about me . . . All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”
But Cline empowers the women in her novel by making them the most dynamic, interesting, and layered characters. They are the fully formed objects of Evie’s affection: “ ‘Good,’ Suzanne said, surveying me. I ascribed more meaning to her pronouncement than I ever had to Connie’s. There was something grudging about Suzanne’s attention, and that made it doubly valued.” Even the men ruling and dictating the events at the ranch are revealed ultimately to be simple, one-dimensional goons. Though it’s ironic that the heroes of The Girls succumb in many ways to their own flaws (the women after all are the ones to carry out the violent Manson-like murders) their fights for self-discovery and happiness ring the most true.
In the end, The Girls is an impressive debut from a talented new writer. The Helter Skelter and Manson-obsessed will devour the book for its depiction of the events surrounding the cult. However—from its beautiful sentences to its deeper examinations of women, friendships, and self-discovery—The Girls dazzles on a higher level.
Publication Date: June 14, 2016
Publisher: Random House
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer