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Publisher: Random House
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Description (from Goodreads):
Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction—and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.
The Girls is set in Sonoma, California (Cline's hometown) in the summer of 1969, but there are occasional flashes to the present day when the main character of the novel, Evie is 14 years old, on her summer holiday and immensely lonely. Her parents are divorced, her mother is going through a phase of trying to find herself and her father is living with another woman in another city. When Evie gets into a fight with her best friend she starts spending her days on her own, wandering around her hometown. When she meets Suzanne, a 19 year old wild child, she is instantly interested. Through Suzanne, she is introduced to the people at "The Ranch". including Russell Hadron. Very quickly, her innocence starts slipping away and without realizing it she finds herself from a situation she might not be able to escape from.
There are several parallels to be found between Russell and Manson. Similarly to Manson, Russell has dreams of becoming a recording artist, but while he is able to mesmerize the people at the Ranch with his music, actual producers and other musicians are not interested. Like Manson, Russell wants revenge when he is not acknowledged. Also, like Manson's family, also Russell's cult includes a sexual aspect, a certain freedom of sexual acts - taking nude photos, engaging in multiple sexual acts, etc. While the image of Manson has been replicated by popular culture again and again which in result has turned into a demonic entity (which he probably very much was) and almost like a caricature of all evil, Cline keeps a certain distance to Russell as a result of which her story is more about those surrounding Russell, like Evie and Suzanne, rather than Russell himself.
If you know anything about the Manson family, you will probably all the time have an idea where this book is going to. There were no surprises in the narrative. Enjoyment was to be found not from suspense, but from seeing how Cline borrows different aspects of a story already known to me. While I quickly realized that there probably would not be any massive twists and turns here, I kept hoping for a some sort of surprise element. It feels like Cline holds her protagonist Evie so near and dear to her heart that there is not even a chance of her finding herself in any sort of problem. The present chapters very quickly reveal Evie's involvement in the events of the summer of 1969 and not much is left for surprise.
Evie is an interesting character in her own right, but as mentioned, the way Cline writes about her, constantly protecting her, manages to make her uninteresting at moments where tension could have been created to the narrative. The way Evie lives - drinking Martinis as a 14-year-old, spending days alone etc - feels very distant and strange to me. Of course, the time was different back in 1969, but this novel made me realize quite how different it was for some. The relationship between Suzanne and Evie has a lot of potential, but unfortunately Cline keeps it quite vague. This serves a certain kind of purpose within the novel, but at the same time I kept hoping it would be the factor that would would create some more narrative tension to the story.
Surprisingly, this novel was far less disturbing that I expected it to be. There are a few scenes with explicit sexual content or violence, but other than that, it is more of a discovery of being a young woman/girl and finding our place in life rather than a story about violence or sex. Cline writes beautifully, but at times her prose feels like TOO MUCH - there are moments when the story drags and it feels like Cline has tried to substitute these moments with prose that just does not make sense.
I really wanted to like this book, but unfortunately the moment I finished with it, I just felt "meh". If I had known less about the Manson Family I feel like I might have liked this more, but with the previous knowledge I had, this book ended up being very predictable for me. Cline has a lot of potential and her writing is occasionally beautiful, which makes me willing to see what she comes up with next.
"As an adult, I wonder at the pure volume of time I wasted. The feast and famine we were taught to expect from the world, the countdowns in magazines that urged us to prepare thirty days in advance for the first day of school."
"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 like was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spent that time becoming themselves."
"I was an average girl, and that was the biggest disappointment of all - there was no shine of greatness on me."
""Asshole", she muttered, but she wasn't really mad. 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 when the joke was always on you."
"I was already starting to understand that other people's admiration asked something of you. That you had to shape yourself around it."
"They didn't have very far to fall - I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself."
I am not really The Beatles fan nor do I listen to their music very often, but Helter Skelter, for obvious reasons, is a song that came to my mind while thinking about this book and the Manson family. In case you are not familiar with Manson's connection to Helter Skelter, here is a quick summary.
Prior to the Manson murders, Charles Manson talked to his "family" about "Helter Skelter", a war rising from the racial tensions between the black and white Americans. He believed there were messages of war to be found from the lyrics of the Beatles's White Album and was interested in creating an album with his "family" that would do something similar to what he believed The White Album did. According to reports, "Healter Skelter" (notice mistake in spelling) was written in blood to the fridge at the LaBianca estate.