Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Girls

Emma Cline's first novel, The Girls, is the kind of book that you can't put down. It's also the kind of book, if you're me, that fills you with jealous rage that the author earned an increasingly rare 2 mil book deal with Random House at the tender age of...wait for it... 25.

The Girls swings easily between the present, where Evie is a reclusive woman who moves anonymously from place to place, serving as a caregiver when she can, and her 14 year-old self, growing up outside San Francisco.  Evie is staying at a friend's cottage when the friend's son shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend. "She was in the cult," he says to the girl.  The younger Evie is ignored by her parents, her life an expectant kind of waiting.  "All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spend that time becoming themselves."  Evie meets a girl, Suzanne, whose seeming confidence attracts her, and when Suzanne's friends invite Evie to join them, she is happy to follow.

At "The Ranch", Evie meets Russell, and is drawn into the world that they have created, what seems to Evie like the pinnacle of 1960s peace and togetherness: people living free and happy. Evie wants Suzanne's approval ∴ Suzanne wants Russell's approval ∴ Evie wants Russel's approval. Evie is as unformed as a teenage girl can be, easily malleable by everyone around her.  "I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board."

Cline's book has the astounding insightfulness of Being A Girl similar to the mood and tone of The Virgin Suicides. Like Eugenides, she captures the tragedy of American girlhood and its potential dire consequences.  "The Ranch" and Russell, are, of course, Charles Manson and his decrepit squat.  After finishing The Girls, not knowing much about the Manson murders, I fell down an internet rabbit hole about the women who murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969, and how close Cline's story is to the actual events.  Side note: one of Manson's "girls" died in prison at the age of 61, and two others, near 70, are California's oldest female inmates. I read too much about the murders, to be honest, articles for and against their parole, including a sort-of serial from John Waters, and remain unsure how I feel about the women's incarceration.

Cline draws the reader into the mystery of what Evie's role in the murders was.  While her involvement slowly unravels, the older and wiser Evie is observing again, with no small amount of dread, the feeling of the transient, drug-fueled experience of her friend's son and his girlfriend.  She sees in the girlfriend the too-willing desire to please her jackass boyfriend, how she puts off too easily her own needs and desires for whatever interests him.  Their uneasy connection, in parallel with the '69 story, seems fraught with potential violence.

I thought the book was incredibly written and it really made me think about so many things  - although, one of the things it made me question was the sensationalism of this type of crime and my own place as a consumer of its gory details.  Cline's book doesn't dwell on the details (thankfully!) but draws a clear picture of how easily young women can be manipulated - that's what's most frightening about The Girls.

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