The Girls by Emma Cline

The Age of Aquarius…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the girlsEvie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Childhood friendships fracturing as adolescence takes its toll and her parents each forming new relationships after their divorce, Evie feels alone and suddenly worthless, unwanted, almost invisible. When she sees the girls in the park, she is fascinated by everything about them; their air of wildness, defiance of social conventions, even their look of tattered grubbiness has a glamour in her eyes. So when one of the girls, Suzanne, seems to single her out for attention, Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The story is told by Evie from the present looking back. Right from the prologue we know that some of the girls will take part in a horrific multiple murder, but we don’t know the details and we don’t know how involved Evie will be until the end. In fact, though, the actual event is secondary – the book is about the psychology of cults, about how vulnerable people can find themselves being led to behave in ways that seem incomprehensible to onlookers, giving them an aura of almost demonic evil. As has been well trumpeted by the hype surrounding the book, it is loosely based on the Manson murders.

This is undoubtedly one of the books of the year for me. Cline’s writing style takes a little getting used to – while excellent, she perhaps strives a little too hard to be “literary”, especially at the beginning. But either her writing settles down after that or I got used to it – whichever, I soon found myself completely absorbed in Evie’s story. The characterisation is superb, of all the characters, but especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval.

The Manson "family"
The Manson “family”

Evie is at that age when she knows all about the adult world but isn’t part of it. She understands that the girls from the ranch are in some kind of sexual thrall to Russell, but Cline shows Evie as still being at that stage when girls are more interested in their relationships with other girls, when even boyfriends and sex are more about peer pressure and being in with the crowd than about real attraction, sexual or otherwise. She is a lonely, vulnerable child-woman, wanting to know what it’s all about, wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to do whatever it takes to be permitted to stay around Suzanne. Even when she is inevitably drawn into the sex aspects of the cult, for her agreeing to participate is more to do with her crush on Suzanne than any particular admiration for Russell. Intriguingly and, to me at least, convincingly, Cline emphasises that it’s the girls who set the bait to attract other girls into the cult. The cult leaders aren’t let off the hook – they are clearly shown as abusers, but Cline shows the subtlety with which they indoctrinate these vulnerable, often damaged girls – and indeed boys – to become willing victims at first, and later willing participants in the victimisation of others.

Although it’s only touched on lightly, Cline shows the impact the Vietnam war was having on young people at this time, with a growing division between the ‘patriotic’, rather conservative pro-war faction and the more hippy anti-war culture, with both sides always aware that young men drafted to the war might die or come back horrifically maimed. And, again subtly, she shows the ‘generation gap’ that in some ways grew out of this, with young people losing respect for authority of all kinds, including their parents, and parents in turn baffled by their children’s rejection of their values. This aspect of the book reminded me of Roth’s American Pastoral, though seen this time through the eyes of the child rather than the parent; and of the musical Hair and its divided reception – the serious points it made about the anti-Vietnam movement, the hippy counter-culture and the growing disconnect between the generations somewhat lost on an older generation that became fixated in shock over its on-stage nudity.

Age of Aquarius-790-xxx

In the present day, Evie is equally convincing as a damaged survivor of the cult. She is staying temporarily in the house of a friend, whose teenage son turns up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Sasha. When Sasha learns that Evie was part of this infamous cult, her curiosity forces Evie to look back to those days and re-assess her own involvement. She sees some of her own vulnerability in Sasha, and also her own refusal to accept advice or guidance. We see Evie haunted still by the massacre, questioning her own level of culpability, her own willingness to step knowingly over moral boundaries in a bid to belong.

Emma Cline
Emma Cline

Overall, I found this a thoughtful and convincing look at how cults attract, especially in times of social unrest. It’s also a well-told and interesting story, though I feel the link to the Manson murders might actually work against it by raising expectations that it will be more sensationalist than it actually is. The massacre is foreshadowed throughout and the rather understated telling of it doesn’t lessen its impact, but the emphasis of the book is more on the psychological journey of the cult members to that point. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début – an author I’ll be watching keenly in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12
Book 12

58 thoughts on “The Girls by Emma Cline

  1. I have heard about this book and your review has heightened my interest. I find cults quite fascinating so this could be right up my street. Although I sort have got my hopes up for a big, graphic murderous rampage now 🙂

    • It’s had quite a lot of hype but a lot of it has concentrated on the link to the Manson stuff. I don’t want to disappoint but the murders are quite understated really. On the upside, there’s lots of sex and drugs! 😉 It’s a great debut – a bit too “creative writing school” in parts, but I’m sure she’ll develop out of that.

      • Ah well, sex and drugs will just have to do, if I can’t have over-blown murders 🙂 Very tempted to give it a go, although it will have to join an ever-growing pile which started on my bedside table but has had to spread out onto the bedroom floor. I am almost running out of room for biscuits…

        • *gasps* That will never do! You must start using a Kindle! I don’t understand how I’ve spent all summer reading review copies and yet still appear to have 42 left to read. I’m sure I only had 38 when summer began… but then I was always rubbish at maths.

          • I just can’t get on with Kindles! How do you write notes in the margins on a Kindle? Terry has started chewing on a few of the books, I reckon he has read them and doesn’t think much to them 😀
            Perhaps your books are breeding quietly. Things tend to get quite frisky this time of year.

            • Ah, see, I personally would shoot people who make notes in margins… or at least confiscate their chocolate! I have the Kindle Fire – the tablet version – and it’s great for quickly highlighting a passage and typing a short note – much better than the original Kindle was for that. Haha! Tommy tries to chew the corner of it, but he doesn’t seem to like it as well as real books. Everyone’s a critic, eh?

              Hmm… perhaps I should reorganise the shelves and separate them by gender…

            • Oh no! I like to make little notes all over! Not in Terry Pratchett, though, or any of my mum’s Agatha Christies (as they are super old). I have mulitple copies of things like the Odyssey and The Illiad, ones for writing notes and one to be kept pristine. It’s my birthday soon, so maybe a Kindle Fire could make it onto the list… especially if cats can’t eat it…
              You might have to FF. You could be overrun before you know it!!

            • No! Should be banned! I do take tons of notes, but in a notebook, and I only started doing it when I started reviewing more seriously. And now I have zillions of notebooks that I’ll never look at again but can’t bring myself to throw out! I think I have hoarding issues! Oh, are you going to be 21 too? It’s a great age!

              Haha! Too late…

            • Haha! I have lost count of the amount of notebooks I have – of course you can’t throw out notebooks! Some of mine have ideas in I haven’t used yet. Even if I’ve used the ideas, I might need to refer back to them at some point. Maybe. That’s my excuse, anyway.
              That’s right, 21 again! I am getting so experienced at being 21. In fact, I will be 21 with 15 years experience 😉 Now I am just getting depressed. I am off to find wine… 😉

            • I think I may even still have my notebooks from the brief period I did/was forced to do a social sciences diploma at the Open Uni. Can’t think why – I wasn’t even interested at the time! But I suppose if I become mega-famous for something, they might be worth a fotune one day…

              Haha! You’re just a beginner! Why, you’ll hardly even have reached the stage where “friends” start giving you wrinkle cream for your birthday…

  2. Great review, thank you. And I totally get the issue of the writing style at the beginning (I described the prose to be like an over-stuffed cushion, full to bursting with similes and adjectives that are redolent of some creative writing schools) – but I think the author found her voice as she got into the story and reverted thereafter only in short bursts… I have also seen some reviews critical of Russell, that he is “charismatic” without there really being any evidence, but I think that is a perfect rendition of cult mentality.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, that’s a great description – my notes show I nearly choked over the prologue and the first couple of chapters, but oddly when I started to write my review I read them again to see what it was that so annoyed me, and found I’d got so used to her style it wasn’t bothering me to the same extent any more. I’m sure she’ll develop out of that in the future though – I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes us next. Again, I agree – the very fact that Russell wasn’t particularly prominent kinda showed the way cult members become complicit in time for recruiting new people. I thought she got the psychology of the whole thing spot on

  3. Your review has persuaded me to add this to my TBR list! I feel that there’s been quite a lot of hype around this book which, for some reason, didn’t make me want to pick it up but from your review it sounds like a fascinating and thought-provoking novel.

    • I think the hype has been counter-productive on this one – too much emphasis on the more sensational side of the Manson story. But the book is much more thoughtful than I expected from the hype, and conversely it seems to be getting quite a lot of negative reviews from people who are disappointed that the murders aren’t the major point. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as i did – always great to find a debut author with so much promise! 🙂

  4. As soon as you mentioned the summer of ’69 and a group of girls, I wondered if this book was about the Manson Family. In history class, we learned about them. Sounds like a very well written book. Since I’m stuck hearing about cases like this, I’ll pass for now. But great review as usual.

    • It’s funny – although I know the name, I never really knew what the whole Manson thing was really about. I was pretty young at the time and I suspect my parents tried to keep us from the more shocking aspects of it. I ended up reading about it when I was writing my review – horrifying and yet strangely fascinating. I can see why you might not want to read this one, but the author is definitely one to watch for the future. I’m intrigued to see what subject she tackles next…

  5. So glad you liked this as much as you did, FictionFan! It really is a fascinating look at the times, at the psychology of cults, at the vulnerability of young people, and at the whole coming-of-age thing. And I think one of the most appealing things is that, as you say, the murders are not the main plot point. Cline doesn’t glorify them or wallow in them, and that makes the story that much better.

    • Yes, I was a bit worried from the hype that it might be very sensationalist, or even a bit voyeuristic. But I didn’t feel that at all – I thought she handled it very well. And I thought she got the psychology spot on – I felt young Evie’s actions were credible at every step of the way. A great debut – I’m intrigued to see what she tackles in her next one…

  6. Sounds like you enjoyed this one, Fiction Fan! Yes, once you decide to overlook the ‘creative writing school’ style of prose (which does give rise to occasional gems, admittedly, but can also be overwhelming at times), it is a subtle exploration of youthful vulnerability and its consequences.

    • I did! Partly, I think because the hype had led me to think it would be more sensational so I was pleasantly surprised by the way she tackled it, concentrating more on how cults happen than on the actual horrors. You’re right – creative writing school is exactly how it felt, especially at the beginning. Sometimes it all gets too much, but I did think she seemed to settle into her style as the thing went on – or I did. I’m intrigued to see how she develops – one of the best debuts I’ve read for a while…

  7. I am not going to read this book…I lived during the time of all of that stuff and when I watched the movie came out it freaked me out entirely. I had night mares. Later in life I got into some religious people that, though not as in your face as Manson things it was the same MO and was more difficult to shake. On the bright side I can see them coming and I pack up long before they can see the end of my back.

    • I was a kid at the time and really don’t remember it much from the time – partly because it was in America and we didn’t get so much “foreign” news coverage back then, and partly I suspect my parents probably tried to keep the more shocking bits away from us younger ones. I can see why you wouldn’t want to read this then – it’s not too sensational but it’s too authentic-feeling to make for comfortable reading of you’ve had experience of anything remotely similar. An author to watch for the future though…

          • Very much so. Some of them are on the edge. I spent several years trying to debunk the whole nasty mess and what I came away with was that it was all about power. And I can smell one of them even now if they get too close. At lease I do not run out screaming and hollering any more.

  8. I’m glad that this one worked for you, FictionFan! It didn’t so much for me, sadly. I just couldn’t connect to the characters enough for me to buy into the novel. I found Evie’s present day story as a middle-aged woman more interesting than her past, for some reason. I do think that Cline is talented and I would definitely try her again sometime.

    • Oh, that’s a pity! I recognised quite a lot of Evie in myself at that age – though I hasten to point out I never joined a cult and haven’t murdered anyone… yet! But yes, I like middle-aged Evie too – I thought Cline did a good job of showing the damage while not over-dramatising the effects of it on her. And I liked the Sasha strand too – made me very uncomfortable. Definitely an author to watch though…

  9. Great review, and the book sounds interesting. I remember the whole Manson thing quite clearly – on this side of the pond, it was the fact that the victims were famous that made the headlines, not the cult aspect, that all came out later. Our Mother did have a tendency to try to censor the press: in my case, all that did was send me to the library to read whatever it was she was trying to suppress1

    • Yes, I think it was the victims I knew most about too – though still very little. Censorship was easier back then – fewer news sources! Plus, I was still a bit young to be interested much, I suspect. I think it was another four or five years before I really started paying much attention to news.

    • Hurrah! I don’t think the hype has done this one many favours, to be honest. Emphasising the connection with the Mansons has made it sound like a bit of sensationalism, and it really isn’t. So lots of people have been put off who’d probably enjoy it, while lots of others have read it expecting something else and been disappointed…

    • Ooh, so glad you’re loving Three-Martini Lunch! Much though I loved her first one, this one is a real step up, isn’t it? She’s so good at creating authentic voices. I’d love to know if you think her depiction of New York feels authentic – it did to me, but then I’ve never been there.

      I’m really sorry, but I do think you’ll enjoy The Girls too… 😉

      • It IS a step up! She has an amazing voice, one that is completely authentic. I also worked in publishing in the city, so this is an extra treat! We used to talk about these three martini lunches! They’re legendary in the publishing business. Best book of the year for me so far…

        I must confess, The Girls was on my radar, so your seal of approval is appreciated!

        • That’s good to know! I’m always a bit hesitant about declaring ‘authenticity’ when I only the setting from other books and films, but this one rang so true. I’m glad you;re loving it – let me know what you think when you finish! She’s definitely gone on to my must-read list – can’t wait to see what she tackles next…

  10. I haven’t read this one, but it does sound interesting. I’m not totally convinced I want to fatten up my own TBR, but this might be a worthy addition. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • This is a good one, but I sympathise with the TBR thing – unfortunately, we can’t read all the books that sound good! If you do decide to at some time, I hope you enjoy it though… 🙂

  11. I’ve read many reviews of this book but been unable to figure out what it’s really ABOUT. I didn’t vote for it at our last book club meeting for that reason. But your review helped me understand the story and why people enjoy it. Thank you for that!!!

    • I must say the blurb and hype around this one have really missed the mark, I think. Lots of people will have been put off on the grounds that it sounds like a sensational rehash of the Mansons, which is a pity since it’s much more thoughtful than that. If your book club suggests it again, vote for it!

      • I think most importantly I’ve not read a single person acknowledge that the story is told from the future and why the character is telling the story. No one mentions sex, either. I thought maybe people were trying to keep some part of the plot secret for spoiler reasons, but I realize now that readers really are falling back on that “it’s the Manson family” idea to explain the plot. If someone nominates it this Sunday, I’ll throw in my vote!

        • That is odd – not so much the future bit, but not mentioning the sex, considering it’s a fundamental part of the whole thing! Not that it’s particularly graphic about it – but it’s not coy, either. It’s one of those ones that it would be quite hard to spoil because you more or less know from the beginning how it’s going to end – it’s more to do with the bit in-between. Hurrah! I hope someone does!

    • Yes, I felt she really got into the mindset that makes cults possible, rather than just concentrating on the sensational aspects. An author I’ll watch out for in the future, for sure!

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