So I know they say you should never judge a book by it’s cover but I have to admit that’s what I did when I requested a review copy of The Girls by Emma Cline. Well almost, I also read the blurb, which intrigued me just as much…
California. The summer of 1969. In the dying days of a floundering counter-culture a young girl is unwittingly caught up in unthinkable violence, and a decision made at this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, will shape her life…
Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiate heat.
Until she sees them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls.
And at the centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways.
Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?
Set at the end of the sixties, when flower power was starting to lose it’s bloom, The Girls is based on the story of Charles Manson and his killing of Sharon Tate. It’s narrated by Evie, now a grown woman but 14 at the time she became involved with Russell and his followers during a long, heat-filled, summer. A summer where she had fallen out with her best friend and her family was falling apart, where she felt unloved and alone and , as well, like a typical awkward teenage girl – unsure of her looks, her personality and her place in the world.
Evie was looking for something to fill the loneliness and she found it in Suzanne, a few years older and one of a number of girls in their late teens who lived with Russell on a nearby ranch. Girls who lived freely and gave themselves freely, in love with and enthralled by Russell. Evie longs to be part of this and does everything she can to fit in, to become one of them and – to a degree – she does. In the wings, though, is he normal life which she can’t quite escape either.
Told in four parts which span the course of the summer but also the present as well as the past, Evie looks back at what happened, how she became involved with the group and how her life changed as a result. As an adult, she has the benefit of hindsight, can see the needy teenager she was, can see she had a lucky escape, but there is also a sadness to her, a sense of regret – a feeling that the rest of her life has never lived up to the summer of 1969.
“I didn’t tell him that I wished I’d never met Suzanne. That I wished I’d stayed safely in my bedroom in the dry hills near Petaluma, the bookshelves packed tight with the gold-foil spines of my childhood favorites. And I did wish that. But some nights, unable to sleep, I peeled an apple slowly at the sink, letting the curl lengthen under the glint of the knife. The house dark around me. Sometimes it didn’t feel like regret. It felt like a missing.”
In the beginning I can see why she was so drawn to the girls. They were different, exciting, lived by their own rules which must have been appealing for a young girl who felt so bound by the rules of others. As the book progresses though, the story gets much darker, the girls much meaner. You start to see how they exploit Evie’s neediness – but also how they have been exploited too, meaning nothing about the ending to this story is clear cut. There is a question about just how much they were in control of their own lives after all despite their claims of freedom. In a way, it’s tragic.
Emma Cline doesn’t make any judgements. Other than Russell there are no good or bad guys; though there is right and wrong, she shows how the line can so easily be crossed when people are lost and desperate to believe in something, anything. She also lets the story unfold slowly, taking time to develop Evie as a character who is more complex than I originally thought she would be.
The book itself is beautifully written, evoking the period, and drawing me in completely with the way it described the people and the places. It felt well researched and, whilst I don’t remember being quite as lost as Evie at 14, I do remember how hard those teenage years are and I feel Cline did a really good job capturing this. It all meant that, once I started the book, I really didn’t want to put it down. I loved it – and, with the exception of The Vegetarian, this might be my favourite book of the year. Highly recommended!
Note: I received a copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.