When I first heard about Emma Cline's The Girls, I was skeptical. I read Helter Skelter last year, so I didn't quite see the appeal of a fictional story about a Manson-like cult. From what I could tell, the book would be a cheap knock-off, a shadow of the real thing. Why bother? I tried to forget about The Girls, but the amount of people who recommended it to me skyrocketed, the sheer volume of reviews I saw online was insane, and ignoring it became impossible. So, I requested a review copy and was graciously given one by the publisher.
Upon reading the first page, I realized my mistake. Helter Skelter had been a biography. A third party depiction of what went on at Spahn Ranch with Manson and his girls. Emma Cline, however, offered up Evie Boyd. A girl who didn't look like much, but whose insecurity and loneliness would propel her into the arms of murderers. As the reader, I saw Evie's slow, but steady shift into chaos. I watched her life change from one of adolescent displeasure to outright rebellion. Even more, I saw the appeal the cult held for her.
One key difference from the stories told about Manson's cult and the fictional cult of Russell was that Evie wasn't lured in by the raw power and sexuality of the cult leader, but rather of one of the girls, Suzanne. Evie saw everything she wanted to be--desired, powerful, carefree, confident--wrapped up in a shabby bohemian dress and ratty hair. Her desire to be liked, to belong is not unusual in itself. It could easily be transplanted to a high school YA novel with Evie trying to get in with the popular kids. However, in this case, the popular kids are in a murderous cult.
The thing I found most surprising about The Girls was how much I related to Evie. Her almost crippling need to be liked, her desire to be extraordinary. Emma Cline told the truth of being an adolescent with brutal, disarming honesty. Evie really does represent the average 14-year-old girl, which makes the truth of this story so much more powerful. It's so comforting to believe you'd never be capable of murder, that you would have despised Manson/Russell and his band of merry followers. However, Evie shows how easy it is to become wrapped up in something so much more powerful than yourself. How easy it is to lose yourself in someone else.
Some readers complained about the small handful of pages that dealt with the murders. So, if your interest in The Girls begins and ends with the Manson-like murders they'll commit, this book is not for you. However, if you've ever asked yourself, "how could anyone have found themselves wrapped up with Charles Manson?" then this book is definitely for you. Emma Cline tells Evie's story so truthfully it's easy to forget she's a fictional character, rather than an ex-member of the real life cult.
We learn right away in the book that Evie didn't take part in the murders, but we see the way her involvement with the group haunts her well into adulthood. The way people view her as someone vastly different from themselves, capable of horrors. We also see the way Evie views herself. Still with a sharp eye for her own imperfections and faults, Evie must live her life wondering if she would have participated in the murders given the chance. Would she have stopped them or would her desire to belong have carried her into an act she could never take back?