Sitting on a bench in a crowded park in Northern California during the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Evie Boyd eats a hamburger alone, quietly observing the swarms of people around her. She lays eyes on a tall, beautiful black-haired woman, Suzanne, for the first time. Just then, Suzanne pulls down the neckline of her dress, exposing her nipple, and her friends all laugh. None of them bother to look around to see if anyone noticed. They continue gliding through the park, “like sharks breaching the water.” Evie is mesmerized by how bold Suzanne is, how “garish and careless.” The moment is seared in her brain, and brings color to her otherwise dull, lonely adolescence.
Emma Cline’s The Girls is a book that perfectly encapsulates the angst and insecurity and sadness of adolescence while transporting the reader back to a time when there wasn’t a mass shooting in the news every other week. A time before the Manson Family, when America didn’t feel unsafe leaving their doors unlocked. And the moment, or murders, when that all changed.
The Girls is loosely based on the story of the Manson Family, and the character of Suzanne is meant to be Susan Atkins, one of Manson’s most devout followers and the woman who claimed to have killed Sharon Tate.
When Evie meets Suzanne, she becomes obsessed with her. She follows Suzanne all the way into a Manson-like cult on a commune outside the city, where they worship a man named Russell. In Cline’s version of the story, there is a lot less gore and violence, and Russell almost pales in comparison to Manson himself. He is, however, just as manipulative and charismatic. Cline writes he could “change himself to fit the person. Like water taking on the shape of whatever vessel it was poured into.”
The story closely follows Evie as she lives a double life, escaping to the ranch—where she’s forced to perform sexual acts on Russell, and where she relishes every moment she gets with Suzanne—then occasionally returning home, to the suburbs and her mother’s meatballs.
We watch as the rest of the lost and lonely girls fall under Russell’s spell, losing themselves on the commune, but feeling like they’ve found meaning and purpose in this bizarre reality. Russell leads them to commit horrific acts, based on the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles in 1969.
Rather than focusing on the grim details of this fictional Manson Family, The Girls hones in on the experience of being young and aimless, searching for some kind of self-worth and acceptance that feels so far out of reach. The feeling of settling for love in any form, even if it’s abusive and controlling, random and chaotic, like the “love” Evie finds on the commune.
We watch as Evie transforms from a girl who, when offered to “take what she needs” from her mother’s purse, “never took more than I should have and was always conscious of returning the change,” to someone who steals from her mother, too ashamed to look her in the eye, and is roped into a scheme to rob and murder.
An older, present-day Evie is relaying all of this to a teenage boy and his girlfriend Sasha, who reminds Evie of a 14-year-old her. The young man and Sasha are staying in the summerhouse Evie’s occupying and give her a reason to relive her past, a past she seems almost grateful to relive. Since her days in the cult she has, in her words, “tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences.” Through this story, she gets to examine her own existence.
In The Girls, Evie represents the innocence of the time she was living in, even down to the music playing in her mother’s home, which Evie describes as “bland and cheerful and old-fashioned.” Through Evie’s past we are able to reflect, like her, on how all of our experiences—all of the times we were in over our heads, found ourselves in situations beyond our imaginations—have shaped who we’ve become. And how no matter how complicated things got, there will always be a part of us that longs for the reckless freedom of our youth.