With the past couple of years bringing the much maligned genre of true crime back to the forefront, thanks to podcasts like Serial, documentaries such as The Jinx and Making a Murderer, and the critically acclaimed dramatization of the OJ Simpson trial, American Crime Story, a revival of interest in the Manson family seemed inevitable. Indeed, it has already been the subject of a so-so drama (NBC’s Aquarius) and a captivating season Karina Longworth’s Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. It’s a story, almost mythic in quality by this point, that will forever arouse interest, and it is perhaps this eternal fascination that led to Emma Cline’s debut novel receiving the hype that it has, along with a $2m advance.
14 year old Evie, a child of the 60s who struggles to find a sense of self amidst her parents’ divorce and a splintering friendship, finds herself drawn to a group of carefree vagrant young women she sees rummaging in a bin for dinner. In particular, she finds herself enthralled by Suzanne, who invites her to meet their leader, a charismatic man named Russell who preaches tranquillity and freedom from possessions while trying to secure a record deal.
So far, so Manson. The parallels are hardly subtle – Evie as Linda Kasabian, Suzanne as Susan Atkins, and of course Russell as Charlie himself – but those expecting a deeper dive into the machinations of the now infamous cult will be disappointed. Evie herself makes for a strong protagonist when separate from the most enticing parts of the story. The undoubtedly elegant prose strengthens her sense of hopelessness and desperation to cling to something or someone to call her own. Everyone around her seems wrapped up in their own selfishness, and rather than resent them for it, Evie craves to duplicate it. Her single-minded infatuation with Suzanne allows her to see and be seen. The girls of Russell’s commune are unbound by the restrictions of society, and in their willingness to let Evie tag along, she finds something powerful inside herself.
These moments are where The Girls is at its strongest – those teenage dreams and longings one finds themselves swept up in and happy to follow even as the shine wears off – yet it feels separate from the hook of the tale. Lift Evie’s story out, with or without Suzanne, and place it in a different time or context and little changes. There’s a disconnect between Evie and the world of the girls she enters. She perceives their situation like a scholar imparting hypotheses on how these women found themselves becoming the willing servants of such a pathetic little man, but we’re never fully exposed to it. There’s a lot of telling when what we really need is showing.
Much of Russell’s ramblings and the hold he has over the group is kept to the periphery, with Evie only occasionally engaging in any kind of interaction with them. It is established early on, in one of the novel’s episodic flashforwards to Evie’s current life, that she had no involvement in their crimes and is never really mentioned in any of the case’s numerous write-ups. Coupled with the constant foreshadowing of the terrible events to come and it can’t help but feel defanged. Cline seems unwilling to put her young protagonist in any kind of danger, even though she does experience some majorly uncomfortable moments.
Evie seems undoubtedly smarter than Russell, and never fully commits to his worldview, yet we’re still supposed to believe it in the moments where she does submit to his will. here’s something admirable about Cline’s refusal to strengthen the already overpowered legend of Manson’s allure, a by-product of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s case combined with decades of mythmaking, and expose this leader for what he really is – a stoned unwashed narcissist with some charisma at a time when that combination held some interest – but after a while you can’t help but question why the hell Evie’s still hanging around with him. Suzanne wields more power over Evie but little is shown of her relationship with Russell, the man to whom she is his most zealous devotee, although the obsession Evie has with her makes somewhat more sense in the story.
As a story of loneliness and the perils of young women pushed to the limit, The Girls is a strong debut for Cline. Many may be disappointed that the story isn’t the next Helter Skelter despite the novel’s many charms, but it will sit comfortably on the shelves of coming-of-age stories like The Virgin Suicides, ready for many a teenage girl to pick it up. For a story so confident in diving the depths of a solitary adolescent psyche, it’s a disappointment that it becomes so timid when faced with a more alluring darkness.