The Girls: Emma Cline

★★★★

Following Gone Girl, I switched my attention to Emma Cline’s sun-drenched, twisted slice of 1960s Californian life, which is inspired by the case of the Manson Family (a story, I should stress, that I knew nothing about beforehand). Unfolding at the dreamy pace of a marijuana trip, it doesn’t match Gone Girl’s urgency, but it offers more relatability, in its tale of a fourteen-year-old girl who just doesn’t fit in, and the seductive gang of dreamers who capture her imagination. Few of us, thank God, will have gone as far as our protagonist Evie Boyd, but I suspect that many of us can remember the pain of teetering on that brink between childhood and adulthood, feeling eternally divorced from either place and, somehow, feeling so much older than all the adults around us. Cline manages to produce a book that’s compelling, compassionate and wise, as well as plumbing some of the darker places in the human soul.

Life used to be easy for Evie Boyd; but now her parents are divorced. Her dad is living with his PA, Tamar, and her mum has morphed from a brittle, anxious creature into a revivified earth goddess, full of the esoteric mysteries being peddled in California in 1969. Most alarmingly of all, she has started dating again and Evie finds her childhood home invaded by a series of slimy would-be father substitutes. Pricked by the first stirrings of her own desires, Evie fixates on her best friend’s brother and indulges in the kind of dreary high-school fantasies that come to those with nothing better to imagine. But then, one day, she glimpses a group of girls in the park. Something about them resonates with her, provokes an electrical sense of connection. Loose-limbed, leggy and long-haired, they surely come from a different world: one of colour and hope and possibility. And sex. And so, when Evie gets an invitation to join the girls at ‘the ranch’, she eagerly snaps it up – little realising how her life is about to change.

What happens is terrible, of course, but it’s how Evie processes is that is absorbing. Her fourteen-year-old self is so utterly believable. She thinks herself so mature and yet her very maturity is an act. Her world-weariness is assumed in the desperate hope of impressing others; her crushes on boys have been put on from a magazine. I loved one particular description of Evie listening to music, earnestly and deeply, finding some eternal truth in its tragedy:

[I chose] songs that overheated my own righteous sadness, my imagined alignment with the tragic nature of the world. How I loved to wring myself out that way, stoking my feelings until they were unbearable. I wanted all of life to feel that frantic and pressurised with portent, so even colours and weathers and tastes would be more saturated.

Who didn’t feel like that at fourteen? I remember lying on my bed, listening to Savage Garden on loop, convinced that To The Moon and Back and Truly, Madly, Deeply were the most profound and pure songs in the universe. Such meaning, if only you had the heart to understand it! But Evie has the misfortune to be growing up in 1969, where feeling disconnected from the real world is a common pastime, and its cures come in new and disturbing forms: drugs, free love, communal living, and a disregard for traditional values. At the ranch, she finds a community which has shrugged off the shackles of convention, where clothes and men and children are held in common, and where the girls flock around their svengali, the dangerously charismatic Russell. Russell has dreams. Russell has a messianic mission to bring the world to its knees. Russell is going to release an album that will transfix everyone with its power and self-evident purity.

Now, looking back from middle age, Evie tries to understand the path she took among Russell and his girls – babyish Helen; unpredictable Donna; dazzling, overwhelming Suzanne. Cline recreates all the confusion, stifled sexuality and indignation of being fourteen: the petty jibes of friendships; the frustration with parents who are too dull or trying to be too cool or simply too demanding; the swerving between ‘child’ and ‘woman’; and the impatience to see what comes next, because adulthood must surely be over the next hill, and then it’ll all make sense. It amounts to what is almost a dissection of the female teenage mind and I’d be very surprised if any woman can read this and not feel a bat’s squeak of empathy with Evie in her awkward adolescent misery.

Yet that study is only part of the story: the real plot comes from the dynamics of the community at the ranch and Russell’s growing megalomania. Those who are familiar with the story of Charles Manson will recognise parallels much more quickly than I did: I was forced to cross-reference to Wikipedia, which has probably screwed up my internet search history for good. As far as I can see, Cline has cleverly followed the lines of true events without stifling the creativity of her own story. Evie’s experiences, half-liberating and half-exploited, are convincingly and powerfully told – as are the ways in which those experiences continue to bedevil her life and sense of self even forty years down the road. And, with the exception of Russell, the book focuses almost exclusively on the relationships between young women. Whether at the ranch or at Evie’s suffocating girls’ boarding school, her spheres of real experience are heavily female-dominated, with men in some other, outer sphere, serving as goals, validators or judges.

This is a more thoughtful book than you might imagine and you can read it on different levels – it is also a perfectly good straightforward thriller. But, for me, its full poignancy and merit come from its ability to capture Evie’s teenage state of mind in all its innocence and debauchery, its longing and loneliness and sullen rejection, its crudity and poetic efflorescence. It’s a story of trying to find oneself at an age and in an age when firm signposts were being ripped up, and it was hard to resist anyone who seemed to have the answers – even if, in retrospect, those answers led to to some dark places. If it has one flaw, it’s that the end feels rather bland in comparison to the intensity of the rest, but perhaps this is just a natural consequence of the author turning down the pace as we come towards the finish. It certainly wasn’t enough to spoil my experience or to taint my feelings about the novel overall. Elegant, thoughtful and shocking, it’s a sobering book.

I’d love to know from those who were around at the time: how far does Cline’s vision of the late 1960s and early 1970s match with what you remember of the spirit of the age? And what was it like to grow up in a period which had consciously unmoored itself from the strictures of the past?

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