If you have not read Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel The Girls, undoubtedly the one thing you know about the book is that it is based upon the Manson Family and the murders they committed in the late 1960’s. This is true, to a point. A cult that closely resembles the Manson Family does play a key part in the novel, but it is used as more of a backdrop, a setting, onto which Cline writes the main character, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd. The Girls is named almost erroneously, as although the girls of the cult, particularly their mother-figure Suzanne, are always close in the novel, it is Evie that the book is centred around, and it is when focusing on Evie that Cline’s writing is most effective.
The cult that Evie becomes a part of in the novel is the Manson Family in all but name. The prophet-like leader named Russell a parable for Charles in real life, and the ranch they inhabit is quite obviously Spahn’s Movie Ranch, where Manson and his followers decamped after being thrown out of the house of Dennis Wilson (of Beach Boys fame). The violent, horrific murders that are heavily foreshadowed, and occur at the end of the novel are similar to those committed by Manson’s followers on the actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child and numerous family friends and visitors to her property.
Perhaps because Cline is so heavily hinting that her cult is that of Charles Manson, she leaves the characters – Russell, the leader, and Suzanne, the most central of the eponymous Girls in particular – lightly sketched out. There is no examination of the inner workings of the cult, and those hoping for first-hand accounts of the murders themselves will be left disappointed. Evie is absent for both the deterioration of the commune from idyllic escape from her mother and her dating life to a toxic environment of hatred and suspicion, and the killings too, being dropped off at the side of the road on the way to the house, when Suzanne realises the extent of Evie’s youth and naivety. Instead, we join Evie in finding out about the crime through television at her father’s apartment.
Evie is frequently pulled by Cline out of life at the commune and back to her parent’s house for lengthy periods. It would be tempting to look at these as uninteresting asides, irrelevant to the story. But they are not simply asides, they are effective, particularly in comparison with the sections set in the present day, when Evie is middle-aged and house-sitting for a friend, only to be interrupted by the friend’s son and young girlfriend. This look into the mind of a middle-aged Evie accomplishes nothing other than pointing out that people still recognise her as part of the cult, which is surprising given her limited involvement with the crimes and the subsequent trial, and that her life has not turned out quite as her fourteen-year-old self would have hoped. The one effective piece of writing about Evie in the present day is at the very conclusion of the book, where it becomes apparent just how much fear is left in her about reprisals for her involvement.
However, the scenes in Evie’s youth, where she is either at home lamenting her mother’s choice in men after her divorce, or desperately flirting with her best friend’s brother, work better. They may not be involved with her time on the ranch, but the cult and the murders are just a thin frame of plot, from which is hung the impressive writing in the book; that detailing Evie’s struggle dealing with her parents’ divorce and her imminent departure for boarding school. This departure, coupled with classically teenage faux pas while flirting, drive a wedge between Evie and her best (and only) friend. This, along with a strained relationship with her mother and a largely absent father, is what drives her to the ranch, into the dangerous relationships Russell, Suzanne and the other peripheral members. Cline’s best writing is when she is writing about Evie’s teenage struggles, not when describing the ranch, though it should be noted that the entire novel is written with assured confidence. It makes sense that her focus is pointed towards her strengths; Evie.
Cline could have delved deeper into the machinations of Russell’s cult and those who inhabited it. She could have even distanced her plot entirely from the spectre of Manson, and had her cult be entirely different from the infamous Family. But to criticise Cline here would be to miss the point of the novel. The focus is Evie, her struggle into her teenage years and her relationships with those close to her. The cult, particularly its inspiration being the Manson Family, is almost just a selling point, something that would make people buy her work – and buy it they did, Cline’s advance for the novel was rumoured to be in the six or seven figure range. When people do buy the book, they find her strength lies not in a gruesome murder mystery, but in writing about the awkward growing up period all teenagers have to go through. It is here that the novel excels, and Cline really shows off her talents.