The Girls by Emma Cline

The girlsWe’ve all heard the story. A string of gruesome murders in August 1969 — the first at the Benedict Canyon home of director Roman Polanski, where five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, died. Then the killings of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, the following night. An estimated 169 stab wounds and seven gunshots fired. It’s a legend that has haunted our imaginations for nearly four decades, and been the subject of countless books, articles and documentaries.

But despite its infamy and lure, the play-by-play of how sociopath Charles Manson inspired his followers to commit such atrocities is not the tale that 27-year-old author Emma Cline wanted to tell. Instead, her hypnotizing debut, The Girls, is a reshaping of those events, with a clique of leggy femmes fatales and a 14-year-old bystander named Evie Boyd firmly installed at the helm.

Cline begins the novel in the present day. An older and still single Evie is house-sitting in a friend’s cottage by the sea. She wakes up to noises in the night. The far-off rattling of a lock picked. Distant voices. “There would be no heroics, I understood. Just the dull terror, the physical pain that would have to be suffered through,” she thinks instinctively. “I wouldn’t try to run.”

It’s a clever entryway into Evie’s paranoid middle-age psyche. The “intruders” turn out to be her friend’s college-age son and his waifish girlfriend, hoping to crash for the weekend. But the knee-jerk fear of being caught unawares that lurches back from her past rattles Evie just enough to remind her that she’s never quite gotten over what happened on the ranch when she was a teenager.

As one might expect, this is where the storytelling — relayed in a series of flashbacks from the beach house to that summer in 1969 — gets interesting. Cline doesn’t spend much time rehashing the well-trafficked atmospheric details of the decade (think “kitchari [cleanses] that stained all your dishes with turmeric” and a Haight-Ashbury “populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets”) or spend too long delving into the brainwashing antics of Manson’s stand-in, whom she renames Russell. Instead, Cline rightly focuses on the charged dynamic between Evie and raven-haired Suzanne Parker, the cold but magnetic 19-year-old leader of Russell’s female followers.

From the moment the half-bored, self-conscious Evie spots Suzanne and her “attendants” Dumpster diving for scraps at a park in Petaluma, “like royalty in exile” with their “air of biblical poverty,” it’s as if something she’d always been waiting for had finally happened. Later, when Evie meets the girls again on a dusty road after a spat with her mother and is offered her first ride to the ranch, she hops in for a drug-fueled, orgiastic solstice celebration. As Cline knowingly illustrates, what brooding teenage girl itching for adventure wouldn’t take the bait?

In a way, the power of The Girls isn’t the idea that any one of us could be murdered in our presumably safe spaces by a band of marauding lunatics at any given moment, though that’s certainly a compelling thought. Rather, it’s that an awkward and vulnerable 14-year-old girl on the prowl for some fun could so easily be recruited by a group of older, seemingly wiser cool kids with the capacity to commit real damage.

And therein lies the key to enjoying Cline’s headline-grabbing book. The events that unfold in its fast-turning pages don’t come as a surprise. We know that creepy Russell will have nasty sex with all the women on the ranch, including Evie. We anticipate the bloody sequence at the end and Suzanne’s role in Russell’s grisly act of revenge. And because Evie’s like any modern holier-than-thou youngster, we’re familiar with the sneaking around and disdainful cold shoulder she directs at her mother as the newly divorced woman primps and settles for an already married lunkhead.

But what’s a refreshing twist is the compassion and pity we feel for Evie as she mucks up her adolescence by becoming naively entangled with the worst kind of crowd and unabashedly infatuated with its feral, hellcat leader, who’s so obviously out of her league.

As one might expect from a much-talked-about novel that reimagines a notorious event from the freewheeling ’60s, the book’s path to publication had its own notoriety. In 2014, Cline landed an essay in the Paris Review about her pen-pal friendship with 55-year-old record promoter and pop icon Rodney Bingenheimer when she was just 13. The Girls is based on a Plimpton Prize-winning story she wrote in Columbia University’s master’s of fine arts program. And in 2014, the full manuscript triggered a bidding war among 12 publishers and garnered a three-book, seven-figure deal and an option for film rights. Not bad for her first time out of the gate.

So does The Girls live up to its hype? For the most part, yes — with one major caveat. Cline’s writing style shows her age and still needs some finessing. Though she has a knack for evocative, often flirtatious turns of phrase, her near-constant reliance on overstuffed, sometimes nonsensical similes and metaphors to deliver a point (comparing Evie’s mother’s attempts to reinvent herself post-divorce to “stroke victims relearning the words for car and table and pencil” is a particularly clumsy example) removes some of the magic from the text.

For at least this reader, it’s often more intriguing — and infinitely more gratifying — to draw one’s own conclusions about a tense moment or subtle facial expression rather than having them spoon-fed.

Still, strip away the book’s flashy subject matter and it’s clear Cline’s writing has serious potential. Her eagle-eyed take on the churnings and pitfalls of adolescence — longing to be wanted, feeling seen, getting discarded — rarely misses its mark. In truth, it’s this aspect of The Girls — and not the rehashed Manson murders — that stays with us after Evie’s whirlwind story concludes.

“Poor girls,” Cline writes. “The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 9, 2016)

%d bloggers like this: