Title: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Read: October 2016
Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
The Girls explores a mysterious and intriguing phenomenon of the human psyche – what makes someone susceptible to being drawn into a cult, leaving all they have ever held dear behind and pledging loyalty to its leader and members, even going as far as killing for them? It is instantly obvious that young Evie is particularly vulnerable to predators. Her home life is far from happy, with her parents divorced and her mother more interested in a parade of different boyfriends than her own daughter. She doesn’t fit in well at school, and is becoming bored with hanging out with her best – and only – friend. When she encounters the mysterious, beautiful and fearless Suzanne, she is instantly drawn to her, as the older girl represent everything that Evie has never been: strong, independent, uninhibited and free to live her life whichever way she chooses. Suzanne introduces her to her cult family and its charismatic leader, Russel, and again it is obvious why Evie is excited by her new friends. Apart from the poverty, the squalor and the lack of privacy, life on the ranch has that element of danger and thrill Evie has been missing in her own life. Cline has done a great job describing Evie’s “golden summer” on the ranch, her emotional high, her refusal to see the truth in front of her eyes. Until the day something happens that will open Evie’s eyes to the truth, the hidden menace, the realisation that she has given her trust to a devil in disguise. Stripped bare of her rose tinted glasses Evie realises that her life has taken a wrong turn, descended into dangerous waters she is not sure she can escape from.
Cline’s descriptive writing transported me effortlessly into the long gone era of the 60’s, exploring not the happy flower-power atmosphere that is often portrayed in other novels of the time but an altogether darker side. Her casual observations of Russell, his followers and their habitat were spot-on, and as readers we were able to see the cracks forming long before Evie does. Because of this, there is an ever-present atmosphere of menace and danger connected to the cult, at times downright creepy. One scene for some reason stuck with me long after I had finished reading – that of a naked toddler playing in the filth, defecating wherever he wants, feral as a wild animal. It embodied the longing for freedom as well as its hidden dangers, that of losing our civilised, controlled, human side that makes us function in society. However, for me a true understanding of Russell’s motives and his hold over the girls was lacking, and I found him a bit of an elusive character and not one I would have thought attractive or charismatic enough to wield such power. I would have loved to have this aspect explored a bit deeper to leave a bigger emotional impact. As it was, the killings lacked a sufficiently powerful motive for me and came a bit out of left field.
I found The Girls a fascinating albeit not always particularly enjoyable read, due to its somewhat sinister theme. All in all, this was a good but not great read for me. I loved Cline’s writing style and her keen observations and will make sure to look up her future novels.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.