In late 2014, the publishing world was abuzz with news of a debut, non-celebrity writer striking a $2 million dollar book deal. At the center of the deal, The Girls was purported to be loosely based on some of the people surrounding Charles Manson; the author, who had just a few bylines to her name, is Emma Cline. When asked about the deal, Cline says, “The way the book is being published has so little to do with me. The part that feels valuable to me is the writing itself and the ability to continue writing.” Now that the book is on shelves, readers, a suggestion: ignore the sensation of the deal, and focus on the sensation of the book. This one certainly lives up to its hype.
The story, put simply: a present-day middle-aged woman recounts when she was an unmoored teenager and got tangled up in a cult that committed a heinous crime. To unpack that, as Cline so deftly does: said middle-aged woman, Evie Boyd, is camping out at a friend’s summer home because work has dried up. Unexpectedly, her isolation is interrupted by her friend’s college-aged son, Julian, and his girlfriend, Sasha, who show up for a drug-run pit stop. Their devil-may-care attitude stirs old memories for Evie, as she can remember her own days of false bravado and idolatry, masked as love. That pivotal time in Evie’s life is further amplified when Julian, in a stoner’s haze, suddenly remembers his dad’s story of Evie’s connection to a late-60s fetishized, cult-related crime.
The bulk of The Girls is Evie recalling and self-analyzing the events that led to the death of three adults and a small child (this is not a spoiler, by the way). When it was all happening—the cult, the path to destruction—certain clues didn’t make sense or raise flags. Now, older, she can almost put the puzzle together. She can see that, though she wasn’t at the scene of the crime, she was caught up in the whir, and could have been there.
From grown-up-Evie’s point-of-view, the story has a haunting quality, rousing up ghosts from young-Evie’s past. Cline was “interested in a narrator who, even though she was much older, would still have the psychological residue from this event, and is in a situation that might bring it out more.” While Evie attempts to reconcile the events that came to pass, she seems to behave with familiar recklessness around Sasha and Julian. “I like the idea that this thing happened to her when she was 14, and she still doesn’t know what it means, and she still hasn’t learned any lesson from it,” she says.
By chance, young-Evie encounters Suzanne and a cohort of other women, and immediately falls in love with the spirit of them, in that uniquely teenager capacity. “For teenage girls, you have that almost hero worship for older girls,” Cline observes. “There’s some element of some sexuality in it and of friendship. Your identity is so amorphous at the time; if you see anyone who has a compelling persona it feels like this magnetic pull.” The pull was strong, and Evie followed. Never mind that these women are in a cult. Never mind that they lived in dilapidated ranch and slept on mats in a shared dusty room, or that while Evie worshipped Suzanne, Suzanne and the other girls worshipped Russell, the Charles Mansonesque figure of the novel.
But, in many ways, Russell isn’t that important in the book. To be clear, he manipulates Evie’s youth and innocence, as he likely has for the other girls, and masterminds criminal behavior including the crime, but he is not the axis on which this novel spins (even if the girls orbit around him). Cline, growing up in Northern California on a healthy diet of stories told in mythological proportions about Manson’s and other cults, notes, “No one ever talked about the women that were involved, they were always talking about the charismatic leader, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson. I saw there was some kind of gap in the way that we talk about those kinds of groups.” And so, The Girls is about the girls. The girls propel the narrative, the girls draw Evie in and, in turn, the reader.
What makes this book so compelling is Cline’s approach to a well-trodden path. Decades later, the Manson crime remains at the forefront of popular culture and obsession—in part because it encompasses so much of the era itself. Cline is not immune to the consuming interest, but for her, “it was always about prioritizing emotional truths.” Manson buffs might not find familiar terrain, but that’s the point: The Girls moves past the clinical facts of a notorious crime in an attempt to get at what it was really like.
Steph Opitz is a writer living in Kyrgyzstan. Her reviews have appeared in Marie Claire, Departures, Garden & Gun, and elsewhere.