That was our mistake, I think. One of many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.
― Emma Cline,
It’s the late 1960’s, and Evie Lloyd is stuck in the middle of nowhere, Northern California. She’s firmly in between childhood and adulthood, caught between her divorced parents, unsure of where she stands with her one friend. When she sees a group of older girls at the park, she’s immediately intrigued and enthralled.
Through a series of chance meetings, Evie soon finds herself drawn into the circle by Suzanne, an older, mesmerizing girl. Suzanne takes her back to their ranch, where Evie meets their leader, a charismatic man named Russell.
An older eye would note that the ranch where they are staying is run down, that their clothes are rags, and that the few young children are living in dangerous conditions. But Evie sees it all as exotic and exciting. She spends days and nights at the ranch, telling her mother that she’s at her friend’s house.
As she gets drawn further and further into the group, Evie starts stepping over lines, getting closer and closer to the unthinkable as the group starts to unravel, and Russell becomes more and more unpredictable.
I wasn’t sure about this book, although the thought of a fictional Manson-like cult did fascinate me. There was so much talk about
But the cult stuff drew me in, and I had to read it.
I’m going to show you all my age here: I remember waking up one night and my television was on in my room. It was Helter Skelter, the made for T.V. movie or mini-series. And these two images, at the end of the movie, are what I woke up to. They’re what I remember.
The movie was made in 1976, so they would have been on late night in the mid-eighties, I guess.
This is how I picture Russell from the book, and Suzanne.
I doubt this is how Evie saw them.
Anyway, The Girls was disturbing and compelling. Cline really took me back to being a 14 year old. She made me thankful I had real friends and parents who paid attention to where I was really going.
I just kept thinking of Evie and her mother, and her mother’s need for love (her mother grew up with a mother who was a semi-famous actress), which made her ignore her daughter for her new ‘man.’ And Evie and her father, who had left the family for his younger girlfriend.
Evie was at loose ends, looking for direction. And it came from this crazy, new source. The poor girl is caught up in looking for friends and boyfriends and love, with her need for attention all mixed up with her raging hormones. It’s amazing how easily she is played.
Suzanne is another interesting character. She almost seems to shy away from Evie and making her one of the group, pulling her in and then rethinking her decisions a few times. Not that that stops her from taking advantage of Evie’s innocence, inexperience, and her need for attention and affection.
The Girls is told in shifting timelines, with Evie in the present flashing back to the summer of Russell and the ranch. Seeing modern day Evie makes it obvious that she never really matured past that summer, never lived up to her potential. Older Evie is lost, unable to sustain a real relationship, both repulsed by and (still) drawn to the cult of Russell. She blames it on her semi-notoriety, spurred by those finding her online and seeking her out. Evie never found another thing that drew her in like Suzanne and Russell, making her unable to move on emotionally.
(That’s my two bit psychological review, so take it for what it’s worth.)
The plot is very engaging, at least for the first three quarters. But just when the cult in the story starts to go crazy, but the story starts to fall apart a bit. It may be a device, because the cult is falling apart, and Evie is shipped away to her father’s house. But I wanted the story to hold together a bit better, I wanted to see the ranch taken down and (this is the mother in me) to see those kids rescued.
I give The Girls 4 stars. Poignant and profound, Cline’s first novel is great. I cannot wait to see what else we get from her!