The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) reflects the author’s fascination with Charles Manson and the girls who followed in his wake, but make no mistake, this is pure, mesmerizing fiction. The story centers on 14-year-old Evie Boyd, all too lonely and taken by the wild, tattered beauty of three girls she one day eyes in the park. She is unable to piece together their strange behavior, proof that she is far too removed from their universe to ever suspect the obvious truth, that they are members of a cult. Evie lives in Petaluma, a city within shouting distance of my own home in Sonoma County, and just about every Northern California city I know and love makes an appearance: Berkeley, Santa Rosa, Sausalito, Humboldt, Ukiah, Palo Alto and San Francisco. How strange to recognize the terrain of a story as that of my very own. Evie ultimately joins the girls on their rotted ranch where she meets Russell, the cult leader whom the girls obscenely worship, though Evie’s obsession curls towards 19-year-old Suzanne: “Her face could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.”
The magic of fiction is felt in the instances that Evie runs into the girls, so perfectly timed, so serendipitous, allowing the story to make full, easy strides forward. Beautiful metaphors are abound, including “spare and empty as a coastal church,” “their hair streaming behind them like flags,” “her life like a TV show about summer,” and my very favorite: “Like royalty in exile.” Cline’s observation of girls is as fine tuned as a medical textbook, putting forward defining markers of girlhood:
“I waited to be told what was good about me.”
“At this age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power of every interaction onto the other person.”
“It was an age when I often conflated liking people with feeling nervous around them.”
I wish such self-awareness had blossomed in me when I was 14, or perhaps had been nurtured in me by a wiser adult, throwing some light into the dark confusion of adolescence. But self-discovery is never to be dependent on others, and above all notoriously late.
Emma Cline is the literary world’s most recent darling. An article in the New York Times practically gushes that Cline “has long strawberry-blond hair, light-blue eyes and a habit of staring into space while formulating her thoughts.” How lovely. The Girls (her first book) caused a bidding war (won by Random House for a cool $2 million), and she’s under contract to write two more. I’m wary of the tendency to amplify a single voice, to idolize, to elevate one above the rest. Surely there are others who have spun words just as fine. Then again, at times, I understand this kind of frenzy that the publishing world orchestrates. The Girls really is that good.