This story is the recollections of a woman who, at eh age of fifteen had a brush with a strange Manson –like cult. While the events are spectacular and appalling, the story itself is autobiographical, and all about the world of a teen-aged girl. This perspective makes the events at the same time more mundane and eerily terrifying.
The early part of the story happens in Marin in 1969, a time and place that seems both familiar and very, very far away. With the perspective of time, we understand some things far better than the people living them at the time. At the same time, there is a charming innocence here, precisely because they have not seen how these things play out in coming decades.
The “girls” in the title are a gang of runaways who are living in a strange “family” dominated by a charismatic man. The protagonist, Evie, encounters them, and is fascinated and attracted. She is attracted to the counter culture rebellion, free love, communitarian life of ‘the ranch’. She is also sexually attracted to one of the girls, in a very tentative and charmingly innocent way.
Cline does a good job of portraying the psychology of this teenager, without leaving out the groaty ickiness of the group. The story captures the feeling of “straight” versus “counter culture”, and how closely they existed at that time. The protagonist slips back and forth between the weirdness of wholesome, whitebread 1960’s America and Charlie Manson-esque weirdness of late ‘60s America. These two worlds are separated by a molecule thin psychological barrier; obviously not seprate worlds at all, but really two parts of the same culture.
Contemporary readers will be very uncomfortable with many of the events portrayed. I cringed at the accurate portrayal of what we would now consider vicious abuse, and at the terrible dangers and risks so casually taken by these kids.
On the other hand, Cline gives us a view inside the head of Evie, where it all makes sense to her, at least at the time. Alienated and in love, these kids aren’t afraid, and seem to find the attention, independence, and identity they deeply crave.
Emma Cline cannot possibly be writing from first hand experience, but she certainly gets the period and the psychology right. (I was around at the time, I assure you she’s frighteningly accurate.)
This is a fine piece of work, though hardly fun to read.
- Emma Cline, The Girls, New York, Random House, 2016.
Sunday Book Reviews