The Short Version: Approaching middle age with uncertainty, Evie Boyd cannot shake the memories of her teenage years – specifically those when she fell in with a dangerous yet liberating cult, transfixed by the independent women she saw and befriended there. But the inevitable violence that made the cult a household name never quite caught Evie and so she must come to terms with that past if she’s ever to have a future.
The Review: The legend of Charles Manson is a potent one in our society. I don’t know when I myself learned about it – certainly not in school and I can’t imagine it was via the internet; I’ve known about it for too long. It feels, in some ways, like it has always been there. One of Doctor Who’s fixed points in time or something. Maybe it’s because we all know the Beatles so well and “Helter Skelter” is one of the quickest ways to freak out members of my dad’s generation – I saw it when McCartney played the song on tour ten years ago during an encore, the men and women of a certain age and time flashed looks of fear and discomfort.
All of this to say: I’m surprised there haven’t been more novels lately about Manson or his ilk. Or at least I was. Reading The Girls, I now have to ask an opposing question: why, exactly, did this book need to be written? I got the sense, while reading, that Emma Cline herself might not even be able to fully answer that question. There are moments of blindingly excellent writing here but they deliver the ultimate sensation of this having been several short stories expanded to fit a novel… but without the structural support truly needed to carry out that larger experiment. I put this down and wondered “why?”
There are moments of All the Birds, Singing in Cline’s structure: an older women, isolated by both choice and circumstance from much of the world, begins to recount and confront her past. Had Cline stuck to this model, giving grown-up Evie as much time as teenage Evie, the book might’ve been very different – as I was completely enraptured every time we returned to the present, seeing Evie interacting with a modern teenager and falling into some of the same traps she fell into at that age while also representing the sort of figure that young girls might look up to and fall into traps around. There was some fascinating psychology here that never really got explored, instead serving entirely as a rickety framework for flashback.
And in those flashbacks, Cline admittedly does a fantastic job of evoking atmosphere. Her sentences are potent and distinct, nearly every single one of them. Certain scenes – the ones that felt like the short stories that the rest of the novel was built around – are, when held apart, things of a dark near-perfect beauty: the Solstice party at the compound, Evie finally stepping up against her mom’s new boyfriend, the scenes of older Evie, and ultimately the (deeply uncomfortable) sex scene between Evie, Suzanne, and Mitch. I can only imagine what Cline might’ve done with the actual murders, had she put Evie into the action instead of leaving that climactic event off-screen, imagined but without the weight of the real.
I think my greatest problem was the disconnect between the way Cline was able to evoke a time, a place, and particular feelings – and the way that she failed almost entirely across the board to make her characters anything other than two-dimensional archetypes, poor copies of a real thing we all know about. When she writes these paragraphs about “girls”, speaking to the largest and most generalized concept of the creature, don’t be fooled by the sparkling prose and the truth of the statements: she’s not telling you anything you haven’t heard before. Not even telling it in a new way, particularly. These insights, more the author’s than Evie’s (the voice feels different), are meant to cut through the book and support our understanding of everything – but they made me just nod a little, sometimes shrug, and keep going without much else to consider.
The cult members in the novel – Russell and Suzanne in particular – also suffer from a lingering question that I couldn’t help asking from start to finish: why isn’t this a novel about Charles Manson? What was gained by creating a sort of alt-history version, taking all of the details from real life and tweaking them just enough to make it fiction – but Mitch is obviously Dennis Wilson, the murders are just close enough to the Tate murders, the details of them driving around in a bus and living out away from society… I’ve seen versions of this story that change the details enough to make them feel original and fresh. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a terrific example and one that even uses much of the Manson mythos to build its characters – but it also retains an originality in its perspective and the way it adapts and changes the story. This book felt almost silly at times, like I wanted to ask why Charles was suddenly going by Russell. Could she not get the rights? Did she not want to create something 100% new or be too constrained by the truth and so she picked a curious middle-ground?
Rating: 3 out of 5. A book can have fantastic sentences and still, ultimately, be a disappointment. As much as I admired Emma Cline’s voice and her way with words, I couldn’t find myself engaged by this book overall. There are moments where the magic works and everything clicks… but Cline is too willing to let that potency slip away, to fade into either overwritten platitudes or nebulous evokings of a feeling that evoke lots but leave little concrete to be stood upon. This is an auspicious debut, but only because of what it implies about what might be possible. I look forward to what she does next.