This book broke me. It made me cringe and it made me uncomfortable, but it also made me think. It made my heart sink at the sudden onset of the vulnerability and angst of adolescence.
Loosely based off the Manson murders of the 1960’s, The Girls offers us a fictional look at the painful manipulation of young, impressionable girls, which uses their obsessive sensibilities, lack of insightful judgment, and rebellious tendencies to lure them into the edge of darkness where they can no longer distinguish right from wrong and are disillusioned enough to leave the hollow outside world for seclusion and manipulation disguised as freedom. It capitalizes on their insecurities to create an isolated world where patriarchy abounds and you’re willing to do anything for some coveted attention.
Evie Boyd is in her 60’s now and a chance happening upon a friend’s obnoxious son and his complicated, desperate girlfriend sends her into a fierce observation and retelling of her youth and how she was briefly drawn into a murderous cult that reshaped her entire life, but left her longingly on the outside.
The novel goes back and forth between Evie’s current static life including her interaction with the reckless teenagers and the summer of 1969 when she was 14 in northern California. Evie is the wealthy granddaughter of a celebrity and the daughter of two parents who are desperately trying to redefine themselves post divorce. Evie falls through the cracks and finds herself amidst all the same failed trappings of all young girls on the verge of growing up. Cline so perfectly writes through the eyes of a young girl in transition to adulthood, making muddled and yet precise observations, while still somehow remaining completely oblivious to the dangers around her. She’s acutely aware that her newly developing body affords her a certain level of power, but with that comes the dangerous rhetoric of female value that hinges upon sexual attention from men. Desperation for love and validation mixed with self-loathing and vulnerability make these girls perfect targets and while it’s easy to peg them as naïve and young, we all know that deep down, we’ve been them, we’ve thought those thoughts, and we’ve believed the lies that the world tells us about being women. The feminist undertones make the sort of observations that all women know all too well, but might not have been able to articulate, until now.
“That was part of being a girl—you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”
“I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”
“I’d enacted some pattern, been defined, neatly, as a girl, providing a known value. There was something almost comforting about it, the clarity of purpose, even as it shamed me. I didn’t understand that you could hope for more.”
When her best (and only friend) separates herself from Evie, she flounders into emotional desperation latching onto Suzanne (who she describes as “tragic and separate, like royalty in exile”), an older girl that she has admired from afar. Soon enough Evie finds herself inseparable to life on the ranch with various characters with questionable moral standards and bizarre life choices including a group of young impressionable girls and their charismatic leader who all become an integral part of her story.
Cline has a way with words that just gets me. They’re sharp, lyrical, and sometimes nonsensical, often relying on over-written metaphors that make unique comparisons. Some people aren’t into it, but I like her style.
“She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.”
This quote from Ron Charles of The Washington Post perfectly captures how I feel.
“The most remarkable quality of this novel is Cline’s ability to articulate the anxieties of adolescence in language that’s gorgeously poetic without mangling the authenticity of a teenager’s consciousness. The adult’s melancholy reflection and the girl’s swelling impetuousness are flawlessly braided together.”
I only have one major criticisms of the novel as I deeply enjoyed it. I wish that the political undertones of the 60’s were more prevalent. While I understand that the free-spirited hippie refusal of popular culture might not have been in the wheelhouse of a 14 year old girl, I think that it deeply influenced the culture behind the ranch and without it, this story could essentially be told in any era and setting. The time of the story had a huge impact on each of the characters and I would have appreciated understanding the philosophy and worldview behind the formulation of the ranch in a bit more obvious way.
What could have been a cheap exploitation of a famous cult and murder was anything but that. It stood on it’s own, but more than anything it made me happy to no longer be a teenaged girl.