Picking up The Girls, it’s immediately obvious that Cline is writing a fictitious tale of a young girl’s encounter with Charles Manson and his ‘family’ during the summer of 1969, and how it shaped her life in the years since.
A single woman drifting from house-sitting job to home care gig to the occasional live-in lover; Evie is nothing like the 14-year-old she remembers being when she met Suzanne, Helen and Donna that summer. Of course whenever anyone talks about that summer they talk about Russell, and Mitch’s house, and what happened that night; but really it all started with Suzanne and the girls. It was all about the Suzanne and the girls. Even now.
The Girls perfectly captures the twilight time in every girl’s life when she’s caught between little girl and woman: wanting to be more, given more responsibility, treated like an adult, viewed like a woman but still unsure of exactly what that means, what those consequences are let alone how to handle them. Emma Cline introduces us to Evie on the cusp of adulthood at a time when her whole world seemed confused about what it wanted and what it meant. The new generation was eclipsing the old and her family’s social standing and old money was suddenly an embarrassment not an asset.
Hungry for something to happen, anything to happen; desperate for attention and longing for some sophistication, Evie unwittingly becomes the afternoon special all parent’s fear, while managing to embody the missive “But for the grace of God go I”. She’s also totally authentic as both a teenager and a grown woman, something I don’t find all that common in novels – it’s usually one more so than the other.
The Girls is one of those rare books that sweeps you up with a story that makes you cancel plans and ignore the phone, your family and the alarm clock (pretty good considering you have a fair idea what’s going to happen!). And it’s also exquisitely written. Cline’s grasp of language, her turn of phrase is stunning. The two together make this an unforgettable read with a protagonist you genuinely invest your heart and head with, one you miss when you close that cover for the last time. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
In a weird twist of fate, I actually studied the Manson Murders when I was 15 and wrote to Charles Manson in prison. (No it was not school or parent approved and yes I got into trouble. More so when he replied.) So for those not so au fait with the Manson family, these are the character equivalents in The Girls: Russell is Charles Manson, Suzanne is Susan ‘Sexy Sadie’ Atkins, Helen is Linda Kasabian, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel is Donna, Guy is Tex Watson and Mitch is Terry Melcher. Terry’s ex-girlfriend Linda and her son Christopher are purely fiction – their characters and back story don’t match the people involved in the real life event, though they are obviously inspired by it.
Reviewed by Sarah McMullan
by Emma Cline
Published by Chatto & Windus / Penguin