I know, I know. I'm *so* late to the game on Emma Cline's stunning debut novel, The Girls. A fictionalized telling of the Manson cult murder of Sharon Tate and others in August 1969, Cline tells the tale of one girl -- our narrator, Evie -- enraptured not by Russell (the Charles Manson figure), but by the girls who surround him. She gets involved with Russell and the drugs because of her attraction to Suzanne, one of the girls. The object of her obsession is not Russell, but Suzanne. It's Suzanne who she's willing to break the law for (stealing money, at first) and Suzanne who eventually leaves her behind one fateful night.
Throughout, Cline's writing captures California in 1969 in way that allows its readers to conjure up everything. Sitting on the beach, I felt like I was at the ranch where Russell keeps the cult, seeing Evie's longing for Suzanne, understanding the looming threat of violence (which does not occur til the very end)... as the New Yorker writes in its review, "Cline concentrates on mood, sense impression, detail, garish comedy, elegant satire."
One passage I cannot shake:
Everyone, later, would find it unbelievable that anyone involved in the ranch would stay in that situation. A situation so obviously bad. But Suzanne had nothing else: she had given her life completely over to Russell, and by then it was like a thing he could hold in his hands, turning it over and over, testing its weight. Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgements, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless. It had been so long since any of them had occupied a world where right and wrong existed in any real way. Whatever instincts they'd ever had -- the weak twinge in the gut, a gnaw of concern -- had become inaudible. If those instincts had ever been detectable at all.
They didn't have very far to fall -- I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself.... (281-282)
NPR wrote that Cline "employs what can only be termed the female gaze as an entry into the...life of her protagonist." And I agree; this book is fully shaped through the eyes of both a middle-aged woman and her fourteen-year-old self. The desire to be "cool"; the nascent attraction to boys; the uncertainty around all sorts of new things (alcohol, drugs); and overall, a vulnerability. Cline said in an interview recently that "I read my mother’s diary from when she was 13. On the day that man landed on the moon, all she wrote in her diary was: ‘I got a terrible haircut today’. And that set a blueprint for how to write about a historically significant period from the point of view of a teenager. We’re completely focused on who we love, who loves us, who we hate, how does our hair look.”
Obviously, since it was fictionalized, parts of history fall to the wayside; the well-documented racism of Manson is erased. Evie plays no role in the murders; she just wants to be loved by Suzanne. Her innocence is debatable, of course, and the moral questions the story raises are just itching for discussion (if you've read it, please let me know!). As the NYT Book review puts it so succinctly:
But Cline withholds the truly vicious Manson who kept his followers paranoid, awaited a race war, sodomized a 13-year-old girl in front of the others, beat some girls and used others for knife-throwing games and traded their bodies like currency. This keeps Evie sympathetic. If she doesn’t glimpse pure evil, can she be blamed for signing on? It’s also conceivable that Cline flinched, for in not pushing Evie to the edge, she eludes a harrowing, possibly profound exploration of her soul.
What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk.
Definitely worth a read.