Readers who are expecting a tight taut cult thriller as they pick up Emma Cline’s debut novel will be disappointed, but only at first. The Girls is a lot more elusive, and much more rewarding than that. Credited by critics and fans alike, The Girls was one of the most hyped books of summer 2016. It’s hard to argue with this reputation as Cline weaves a coming of age story filtered through events based on the Manson Family murders at the end of the 1960s.
Cline outlined this influence in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in May of this year.
“Growing up in Northern California, I heard so many stories about Charles Manson – he became a kind of bogeyman figure to me,”
“I didn’t quite understand that he was in jail – I thought he still lived nearby. And then, in high school, I read ‘Helter Skelter‘ – The True Story of the Manson Murders [by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi], and I became fascinated with the women involved. They were so young, and reading about their lives before they met Manson, it all seemed so familiar.”
Taking this into account, it would have been simple for a writer of Cline’s obvious talent to craft a novel that basks in the overwhelming atmosphere of these horrible crimes, but instead she pulls off something much more interesting.
The Girls is the coming of age story of 14-year-old Evie. Evie is in the midst of her last summer at home before attending boarding school, and feels adrift from her recently divorced parents and her best friend Connie. Looking for something to give meaning to her life, she gravitates towards the titular girls, led by the object of Evie’s affection, Suzanne. Suzanne introduces Evie to her surrogate family: a group of disaffected travellers led by the charismatic Manson stand-in Russell.
The Girls is more of a study of Evie than of the cult. Despite a brutal murder forming the core of the narrative, it’s Evie’s experience: from her present middle-aged self as narrator, and her teenage self, that Cline is most interested in exploring. As a teenager Evie is passive, falling in with the group because she yearns for something to cure her spiritual boredom. The cult, though it is only referred to as such after the murders, is only seen through Evie’s limited proximity to it. Russell is barely seen, with Suzanne the most compelling way in.
The fact that Emma Cline has chosen this way to structure her story goes a long way to explaining why The Girls has been so successful. Instead of being a ghoulish cult thriller, Cline has chosen to use her story to examine what a female-led coming of age story can be. Using Evie as a way to investigate the nature of femininity as someone who is just discovering what her own sense of this means, as well as making Suzanne a tarnished example of this theme, means that The Girls is a much more rewarding prospect for readers. Like the novels of Gillian Flynn, The Girls uses conventions from the thriller genre to tell a deeper story in which the characters matter the most.