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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

Author: Emma Cline (b. 1989)

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Publisher: Random House (New York). 355 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Late 1960s and early twenty-first century

Locale: California

Emma Cline’s The Girls is a fictional reimagining of the infamous Manson Family cult murders that shocked Southern California in 1969, symbolically marking the end of the sixties ideals of peace and love.

Principal characters

Evie Boyd, a bored and restless fourteen-year-old girl living in Petaluma, California, granddaughter of a 1920s movie starCourtsy of Penguin Random House

Russell Hadrick, leader of a hippie commune and would-be rock star whose thwarted musical ambition leads to murder

Suzanne, a nineteen-year-old member of the cult led by Russell

Donna, Roos, and Helen, other members of Russell’s commune

Guy, Russell’s sidekick, one of the few male commune members

Mitch Lewis, a rock musician who befriends Russell but later tries to distance himself

Evie’s mother, who experiments with yoga, macrobiotic cooking, and other counterculture fads after her divorce

Evie’s father, who has affairs with other women and eventually leaves Evie’s mother

The Girls received unusual publicity for a first novel by an unknown writer. Emma Cline was only twenty-five when she sold her debut novel for a reported $2 million as part of a three-book deal. Both the high price and the subject matter of The Girls fueled media attention, since the novel is based on the gruesome real-life murders committed in 1969 by Charles Manson and his followers. Yet The Girls is more than a sensationalist story. The New Yorker called Cline a “talented stylist” who has seemingly been “fast-tracked by the Muses.” Many critics have praised Cline’s fine eye for detail, her ability to capture an era through small but specific details without relying on stock images of the sixties. While The Girls is clearly fiction, the elements of a charismatic cult leader spurring young, impressionable, and mostly female disciples to murder on his behalf echo the Manson Family murders of actor Sharon Tate and six other people in Los Angeles. Cline, a California native, told Library Journal that she was fascinated by the sixties era and the cults and communes it fostered, particularly in California, but no characters were meant to be exact parallels. She said she was more captivated by the young women involved in cults than in Manson and other cult leaders. Evie Boyd, Cline’s protagonist, is drawn to the unorthodox, boundary-breaking life of the commune she visits, but never moves in and is never fully integrated into the group. Using a peripheral character allows Cline a bit more distance from the explosive subject of cult murders as she explores the psychology of a vulnerable teenager looking for a place to fit in and something to believe in.

The Girls begins decades after the infamous murders, when Evie is an adult woman still living a drifting, unsettled life, working sporadically as a caregiver or house sitter. She is staying at an ex-boyfriend’s house when she is scared by intruders who turn out to be her ex-boyfriend’s son and his girlfriend. The panic sparked by this seeming home invasion and the young age of the girlfriend, Sasha, trigger memories of Evie’s youthful involvement with the counterculture group led by Russell Hadrick, a cult whose brutal murders are still notorious. While Evie downplays her involvement with the cult, she realizes it still lends her a certain cachet. Evie thinks about the girls she knew, most now spending life in prison, and wonders how different her life might have been if she had ended up like them.

Evie then revisits her life as a fourteen-year-old girl living in a quiet Northern California suburb. It was a time of intense preoccupation with the self and how others perceived her—spending hours reading and following beauty tips in magazines, thrilling to a boy’s offhand comment that she is “looking good”—and a time of boredom, limited options, and little choice about which direction her life would take next. Her parents’ divorce leaves Evie feeling resentful toward both parents. Her mother is sending her to a private girls’ boarding school in the fall, and she expects to spend the summer with her best friend, Connie, until a rift develops between the girls over Evie’s flirtation with Connie’s older brother, Peter. Left alone, Evie becomes fascinated with a group of girls she sees on several occasions, scavenging for food in dumpsters or shoplifting. The girls, especially their leader, stand out, with their long hair, scruffy yet exotic clothes, and defiant attitude—one girl bares a breast while walking past families in a park. When the girls are thrown out of a store, Evie volunteers to shoplift toilet paper for them. She buys it instead, highlighting her essentially in-between status: someone who wants to seem rebellious and be seen as a rule-breaker but is afraid to do anything really wrong. Still, she makes enough of an impression that when the girls run across her later, stranded with a broken bicycle, they stop to help and end up inviting her to the ranch where they live with Russell, who they regard as a kind of guru and soon-to-be rock star. One of the girls calls Russell “The Wizard” (a nickname also given to Charles Manson), and he seems to have cast his spell over not only his group of teenage followers, but also over Mitch Lewis, a successful musician who helps supply Russell’s people with food and money.

Evie learns that sex with Russell is part of life on the ranch for the girls, and she has a sexual encounter with him as part of her initiation into the group. The adult Evie, looking back, recognizes specific cult recruiting techniques Russell used on her, but as a fourteen-year-old, she believes that Russell has seen something special in her, “as though he had been waiting all night for the chance to hear what I had to say.” Exhilarated at the thought of being part of something out of the ordinary, Evie willingly steals from her mother and flirts with a younger neighborhood boy to convince him to take money from his mother’s purse. In Russell’s universe, old concepts of right and wrong seem negated. Evie drifts along, spending long days and nights on the ranch, where bad food and squalid living conditions are easy to ignore through a haze of drugs and a sense of being part of a shared experiment. “I fell into things,” Evie comments, and when Russell suggests that Evie and Suzanne spend the night with Mitch, Evie falls in with that idea as well. More than Russell, more than Mitch, it is Suzanne who fascinates Evie, and she goes along with sex with Mitch mostly to be close to Suzanne, even though it is clear that the encounter is orchestrated by Russell as part of his attempt to convince Mitch to give him a record deal.

Evie’s two worlds seldom intersect. She feels more and more distant from her family, and when she runs into Connie and another school friend at a town event, they throw soda on her. The group at Russell’s ranch has now become her real family, and when Suzanne and Donna suggest breaking into a house as a way to alleviate boredom, Evie is quick to offer her neighbor’s house. They do little real damage—eating some fruit, trying on clothes—but Evie is caught and sent to live with her father and his girlfriend, Tamar. While she is away from the ranch, the situation there deteriorates. Mitch has not provided the musical sponsorship Russell hoped for, and Russell is becoming more and more angry and paranoid. Food and supplies are scarce. When Evie hitches a ride from her father’s back to the ranch with a college student, she sees the ranch through his eyes: the shabby surroundings, junked cars, and small children running around without supervision. Although she chooses to stay, there is a sense of a shift.

Evie does not realize it at the time, but her last night with Suzanne and the other girls is also the night Russell orders his followers to exact revenge on Mitch, and they murder four of his house guests. Evie narrowly misses taking part in the crime because of what seemed at the time like a betrayal, but may have been her salvation. She is left to wonder how far she could have gone, “half hoping and half terrified that no one was ever coming for me.”

Reviews for The Girls were generally positive, with critics commenting not only on the haunting subject matter but also on Cline’s extraordinary use of language and her close, realistic rendering of the mind of a teenage girl. Library Journal called The Girls “beautifully written and unforgettable.” James Wood, writing for the New Yorker, praised Cline’s deft and precise use of detail; her “remarkable” use of phrasing, metaphor, and simile; and the way she is able to see the world “like a painter,” rendering scenes so vividly. However he, like other critics, found Cline’s work occasionally overwritten, as if trying too hard for surface brilliance—what Kirkus Reviews called “an MFA’s fondness for strenuously inventive language.”

Some reviewers questioned Cline’s choice to draw from such a violent, sensationalistic source to tell what is essentially a story of teen angst. Dylan Landis’s New York Times review, like many others, praised Cline’s finely wrought prose, but Landis writes that by avoiding a full exploration of Manson’s brand of evil in her book, Cline brings her protagonist (and readers) only “halfway down the rabbit hole.” Alexandra Molotkow’s review in New York magazine stated similar reservations, noting that Cline’s novel presented a somewhat sanitized view of the real Charles Manson, a “career predator,” pimp, and white supremacist who was more brutal and consciously manipulative than Cline’s Russell. Molotkow wrote that Cline’s novel could have been more powerful if she had attempted a deeper understanding of the Manson girls, those who actually took part in the murders, instead of telling the story from the point of view of a more privileged outsider.

Despite these critical reservations, The Girls was, on the whole, both a critical and popular success, attaining a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list and garnering respectful reviews for what most critics considered a brilliant and daring first novel.

Review Sources

  • Review of The Girls, by Emma Cline. Kirkus, 15 Mar. 2016, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/emma-cline/the-girls-cline/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Review of The Girls,by Emma Cline. Library Journal, 17 May 2016, reviews.libraryjournal.com/2016/05/books/fiction/the-girls-by-emma-cline-lj-review/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Landis, Dylan. Review of The Girls,by Emma Cline. The New York Times, 31 May 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/books/review/the-girls-by-emma-cline.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Molotkow, Alexandra. “The Girls Misses What’s Truly Scary about the Manson Story.” Review of The Girls,by Emma Cline. New York, 12 July 2016, nymag.com/thecut/2016/07/what-the-girls-misses-about-the-manson-story.html. Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • Wood, James. “Making the Cut.” Review of The Girls, by Emma Cline. The New Yorker, 6 June 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/the-girls-by-emma-cline. Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.

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