Who has not heard of this book? Written by Emma Cline, her debut novel The Girls has been dubbed as the book to read this summer, and even the UK cover starkly reflects the idea of summertime — sun-streaked hair, loose summer dresses, and bright blue skies. One of the ladies from a book club I’m part of actually took it along as one of her beach reads!
Unfortunately, if your definition of a beach read does not involve cults and murders, then you might prefer to not bring this book along. On top of this, if your idea of a holiday read does not involve a lot of introspection and analysing and should, instead, contain quick-paced plotting, then I might suggest scheduling The Girls for another time.
The novel’s cult and with a charismatic leader element is based on Charles Manson and his Family made of young women, who all became infamous for the murder of Sharon Tate and four other people in the summer of 1969 in Los Angeles. While this is probably the book’s main selling point (I’ve read countless articles as to why this still holds the public’s interest), there is a reason why the book is entitled The Girls.
The main protagonist is Evie Boyd, fourteen years old and in the middle of multiple crises — the boy she has a major crush on has left the city with his pregnant girlfriend, her only friend does not want to be friends with her anymore, and her parents have divorced, leaving her with a mother who was neglecting her with parental attention and affection as she tries to cope with her husband (Evie’s father) leaving her for his twenty-seven-year-old secretary. Young, impressionable, and so very desperate to be loved and belong, it is no wonder she was so enthralled by the girls, especially Suzanne, who is thought to be based on Susan Atkins, one of the main members of the Family.
Most of the Goodreads reviews I’ve read for this book keep denigrating Cline’s writing style — it was too overwrought, trying too hard, too affected. I found it hard to get my teeth into it at first, but after a few pages, I could see Cline’s skill of using words to paint her story. I found the book uncomfortable to read because the author had vividly depicted Evie’s intense desire to be wanted and to belong, going to great lengths such as lying, stealing, truancy and more, and it was giving me that sick feeling, like a rotten, knotted ball in my stomach.
Evie was almost completely consumed with wanting to be with and be like Suzanne, and this is why I found the latter character to be the second “star’ of the book. With the story being narrated through Evie’s eyes, I found Suzanne intriguing, and she was appealing because of what she would and wouldn’t reveal about herself, which I believe is what Evie found compelling as well. I wanted to learn more about her, and the shadow overcast by Russell the cult leader felt like that one cloud during a bright, sunny day. And this is why the book is called The Girls — this is not about the cult leader, or how he attracted such a female following, and why they all seem to accept living in poverty in squalor. To be honest, I did wonder that, but the main focus of this novel is of Evie, the girls in the commune, and their relationships with each other and other people.
I can’t say I loved the book, and it’s not something I could easily recommend to everyone without thinking carefully about the other person’s reading proclivities. However, I didn’t dislike it either! It definitely had its moments, and thinking back on it, I enjoyed how my mind’s eye perceived Evie’s days as a fourteen-year-old in bright colour touched with the haze of sunlight, while her adult life was painted in my head as dark, grey, and dreary. Whether that was deliberate on the author’s part or not, I’d say that’s a testament to Emma Cline’s writing ability.
“I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable [..] I need to be told [..] to take a text, be put through a machine that could comb my insides with radiated precision and tell me what the truth was.”
– Emma Cline, The Girls
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Let’s have a chat!
Have you read The Girls? Do you think all the hype around it was legit, or did you feel letdown?
Did it make you want to read more about the Manson murders and the main characters of that real-life story after reading this book?
Many thanks to Chatto & Windus, an impring of Vintage, part of Penguin Random House UK for inviting me to Europe’s first #bookstagram meetup and meeting the author, Emma Cline, in the process! Not to mention letting bookstagrammers have the chance to explore and photograph Waterstones Piccadilly before the store officially opened! One of the highlights of my 2016!