On paper, Emma Cline is the kind of girl I want to punch. A stylish waif with a successful middle-part and piercing blue eyes. The owner of a near-monochromatic wardrobe that’s both simple and defiant in its simplicity. The recipient of a $2 million advance, at the age of 25, for her first book (and two to come), the end result of a bidding war between 12 major publishers. The author of a debut novel whose film rights were snapped up by Scott Rudin before the manuscript even sold. Cline is living a charmed life, a romantic-comedy-set-in-Manhattan kind of life, an I-live-in-a-shed-for-the-novelty-of-it kind of life. I want to find her wherever she’s tapping away on her laptop at twee essays for vaunted literary magazines and punch her right below that middle-part.
There’s only one problem with this plan—several, if you count the unlikelihood of my finding her shed or her even still living in the shed, or my managing to punch anyone in the face, arguably unprovoked, without consequence. The problem is that The Girls, the novel loosely based on the Charles Manson murders, for which Cline received said $2 million advance, is actually quite good. Seamlessly, thoughtfully, annoyingly good. So good I want to punch her in the face anyway for it being so good.
Told from the perspective of one of Manson’s female acolytes (as an adult and as a teenager at the ranch), The Girls isn’t explicitly about Manson. That is, Manson here is Russell, a smooth-talking grifter and would-be musician whose loose cabal of followers live with him on a commune of sorts in California. Real-life Manson followers Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel are here Suzanne, Donna and Helen, Russell’s cadre of female admirers/assistants. Evie, our narrator, appears to be pure fiction.
Otherwise, the details are mostly the same. Evie falls in with Suzanne and Russell, whose silver-tongued pronouncements about the new world order draw followers to him like flies. Later, after being jilted by a producer friend, Russell orders his girls to go to the guy’s house and teach him a lesson. That deadly lesson, carried out by circumstance on the wrong people, seeds a nationwide panic about crime, and ultimately a nationwide fascination with those responsible. Even IRL, after the murder of Sharon Tate and four others at the hands of the “Manson family,” it was the girls who commanded the most outraged attention. Megalomaniacal murderous white men are nothing to write home about. A group of otherwise innocuous young women, though, killing a bunch of people, including a pregnant woman, at the behest of their shared lover-slash-cult-leader? What the shit is up with that?
In an essay in the Paris Review last year, Cline wrote of the Manson girls: “I wonder all the time how easily things could have turned out badly for me; my life gone curdled and sour, ending viciously.” The implication here is of otherwise good kids gone astray, of girls so subsumed in a particular lifestyle and a particular person that they became immune to ever-more-serious crimes. In The Girls, Evie is the embodiment of this lost lamb, a painfully earnest pre-teen with yawning insecurities and a dearth of close friends. When Evie receives even the slightest attention from Suzanne—older, striking, invariably a gateway to excitement—it is as though a window has opened into another world, a world of careless independence and banished self-doubt.
To be filed as banal next to megalomaniacal white men: the tortured relationships of said white men and the women who stay with them. While the girls at the ranch orbit Russell, Cline’s book is far more concerned with Evie’s orbit of Suzanne. After a decade of fickle camaraderie—”I didn’t really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you”— Evie finds herself engrossed in Suzanne. Their relationship, at times distant, intimate and codependent, is the lynchpin of The Girls, and its dynamics are beautifully (annoyingly!) enumerated therein.
Only time will tell whether the $2 Million Girl can expand her reach, whether she can create characters outside of this particular post-adolescent headspace. Which isn’t to say that Cline is a would-be murderess—just that she’s a woman who was a girl, recently enough to be in tune with the hopes, fears and day-to-day machinations involved. Like Elena Ferrante in My Brilliant Friend, Cline captures the nuances of girlhood more precisely than I ever could myself:
“Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”
“That was part of being a girl—you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”
“I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. 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 spent that time becoming themselves.”
As a highly anticipated debut, The Girls will make headlines (and bank) because of its connection to the Manson story, because there are some crime dramas we’ll always be fascinated by, whose retellings we’ll always clamor for. Kudos to Cline for capitalizing on an evergreen of the true-crime zeitgeist. But this book’s biggest selling point isn’t its concept, however ripe said concept makes it for a movie adaptation. In The Girls, Cline lays out plainly the talent that earned her recognition early and often, and speaks truth to power about the many nuances of coming of age as a female. Her novel may be “about” Manson, but its most infamous character is far from its most important.
TITLE: The Girls
AUTHOR: Emma Cline
PAGES: 355 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Cute essays/stories
SORTA LIKE: Notes on a Scandal meets The Following
FIRST LINE: “I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”