A novel that takes on the Manson family, The Girls by Emma Cline could have been a lot of things. It could have been a black comedy about the dark side of female friendship, like Heathers. It could have been a neon-tinted thriller firmly rooted in pop culture references, like Spring Breakers, or even The Bling Ring. Instead, it’s more of a mumblecore story that draws universal strokes about the powerlessness of being a teenage girl.
The story is told through Evie, a 14-year-old girl whose parents spend more time teaching her how to make martinis than paying attention to her feelings. Reeling from the split of their marriage and salty about her mom’s new boyfriend, she’s searching for her own path away from home. One day, she sees a group of glimmering, rough-around-the-edges girls in a park and feels roused in a way she can’t explain.
Emma Cline is careful to establish the quotidian reality of Evie in black and white, and her time with the Manson family in color. Back home in her normal life, Evie’s love interest is her best friend Connie’s brother, whose only notice of her is the occasional inappropriate remark. One beer and weed-fueled night, he fondles her under her pajamas when she slips into his room. Evie seeks to rationalize this underwhelming reality against everything pop culture tells her love is: sexy, romantic, windswept, forever.
When the girls from the park lure Evie into the Manson family farmstead, she finds the thrill she’s looking for. Everyone there speaks in philosophical platitudes, talking about losing touch with the “self” in favor of something bigger. As she falls into the lifestyle of stolen, crumbling cake for dinner and wearing moth-eating clothes, she also gets in touch with her feelings for Suzanne. A compelling, carefree girl, she takes advantage of Evie’s suggestibility.
The plotlines that involve murder and cult violence are almost an afterthought to Evie’s relationship with Suzanne. Evie’s pining is painted in beautifully written strokes, but in some ways it doesn’t quite ring true. The device of a teenage girl protagonist channeling unrequited feelings for a same-sex friend into violent or malicious actions seems especially common right now. (Dare Me by Megan Abbott comes to mind.) It’s definitely compelling, but is that what actual same-sex relationships amongst teenage girls are like? High, murderous drama? Maybe not. (Although in cases as unusual as the Manson family, maybe so.)
What rings the most true are moments when Evie is trying to understand her place as a teenage girl in a world that can often feel ordered by men’s desires. As she’s dragged into a 3-way with Mitch, who may be based on Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, she notes feeling embarrassed that her underwear are still kid underwear. (She is 14.) She finds out that her father has been a serial cheater, and finds herself reflexively being polite to the person at a cocktail party telling her this. As a girl, she isn’t sure what to do other than be polite. After that, she ends up blaming her mother for not being exciting enough to maintain her father’s interest.
These carefully told details about Evie’s life carry more weight than any suspense leading up to the actual murders. The real story is that the average life for a middle-class teenage girl from a broken family can feel so powerless that a cult seems fun in comparison. Now that is depressing.
The Girls often feels more like The Perks of Being a Wallflower than a page-turning thriller about historical murders, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of being grounded in drama, it’s full of everyday observations that anyone who’s been a teenage girl will find real truth in. Emma Cline has a unique voice and a keen eye for the ways reality and expectations don’t often match up. It’s no summer beach read, but a quiet, sobering experience that is definitely worthwhile.