Book review: Debut novel fictionalizes Manson Family murders
The day after I finished this book, I walked into the bookstore and loudly exclaimed that “The Girls” was, undoubtedly, the book of the summer. An inner monologue that exposes every fear, trepidation, desire and judgment experienced by teenagers, “The Girls” is at once a coming-of-age story and fictionalization of the Manson Family murders.
While not appropriate for the faint of heart or those younger than 16, Emma Cline’s debut novel is a relevant and necessary bildungsroman of uncertainty, passion and crime.
Evie Boyd is a typical 14-year-old girl in 1969. She is self-conscious, diffident and living a generally boring existence in light of her parents’ divorce and a falling out with her childhood best friend. Her life changes dramatically after fateful encounters with Suzanne, a decidedly cooler, older and gorgeous follower of Russell, a quasi-Charles Manson character. Enamored with Suzanne and desperate for her social approval, Evie joins Russell’s troupe of primarily young, female devotees.
The storytelling shifts between the perspectives of Evie in 1969 and the present-day, when she is a middle-aged house-sitter still haunted by that summer. The switching narrative peels back the layers of Cline’s main character, allowing readers to discover it was never the charisma of Russell that prompted her to join the cult; rather, it was an intense closeness with Suzanne that Evie truly desired. She wanted to be cool, to be accepted and to be liked, by Suzanne, in particular.
The reader follows Evie that fateful summer of 1969, as she assimilates into a collective of petty criminals orbiting Russell, their demigod. As her obsession with Suzanne grows, so does Evie’s willingness to fit in. How far is she willing to go? What, exactly, is she willing to do in order to cement her position alongside Russell’s followers and alongside Suzanne?
“The Girls” reads as an historical fiction of the Manson Family’s infamous murders. While Cline makes obvious allusions to the timeline and lifestyle of the family, the characters and their motivations are creative inventions of her story. This, particularly, is where Cline makes her literary talent shine: by adding complex layers and dimensions to girls history wrote off as simply lost, impressionable or evil. We see the girls of this story as Evie Boyd sees them: feral, dedicated, interesting and, most of all, sad.
Cline’s writing is neither gratuitous nor sympathetic. It is engaging and realistic, rooted in careful observation of human behavior. I finished “The Girls” quickly, over the course of a weekend, and could not stop thinking about Cline’s language and woven story that is haunting, beautiful and authentic.