It is likely that we’ll be able to relate to one aspect of Evie Boyd, protagonist and narrator of The Girls, a US bestseller by 27-year-old author Emma Cline: Evie is desperate to be older. I know. I just described every teenager. Whether we come from stable, loving families or have parents who are divorcing when we are the only child and 14, like Evie, teenage angst is something almost all can relate to. And the only person who gets it is our friend(s).

The book is set in California in the late 1960s and charts the friendship between Evie and a group of young women in a cult led by Russell Hadrick. Think Charles Manson with equally horrifying results and voila, you are quickly sucked into a novel about relationships, friendships and the power dynamics that lie beneath. I don’t mean to spoil this for you with the Manson reference, but unless you’ve been living under a literary rock, you can’t see a mention of The Girls without the Manson lens.

Young Evie — escaping the banal life at home where her single mother is more interested in maintaining a relationship with her boyfriend and a father whose absence is felt more than his presence — runs into a group of young girls scrounging for food at a park. A thrilling encounter takes place and thus begin Evie’s adventures with the group who live on a ranch led by Russell, a charismatic leader whose every word is treated with reverence.

The desire to belong, to find sympathy and understanding, can lead to dire consequences

But the object of Evie’s affection is Suzanne, a girl slightly older than her but one who oozes confidence, and a devil-may-care attitude that Evie aspires to. It is this relationship that strikes a chord the most as it celebrates the power of female friendship and it does so without it being remotely saccharine — think John Hughes of the 1980s — or the darker Mean Girls variety. It does look at young female friendship, but it’s no Elena Ferrante either, whose widely celebrated books centred on a relationship between Italian girls over a few decades.

Evie and Suzanne are in a cult, both drawn to Russell (perhaps one more than the other) and drawn to each other, even if the intensity is not requited. It is, however, intense, certainly for Evie, who at times is consumed by Suzanne. “Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved,” says Evie.

It also speaks about jealousies, sometimes underlying, sometimes acted out furiously. Both girls have vacuums in their lives that the other fills. Is this not part of the hallmark of great friendship? Beautiful but also complex, especially at such a young age when they’re living on a ranch being ‘led’ by an enigmatic man whose one word can launch a thousand ships. OK, I’m being overly grandiose here, but you get the drift.

Cline captures these complexities — of wanting to belong, of feeling wild jealousies — eloquently. “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,” she writes.

It also speaks about jealousies, sometimes underlying, sometimes acted out furiously. ... Is this not part of the hallmark of great friendship?

I believe the desire to belong is something else that is easily relatable. That Evie goes to great lengths to achieve that acceptance may make us harken back to our own experiences. Has that desire really changed from the hippie days of California where Evie wants to join this group of young girls? Can you relate to Evie whose face lights up when Suzanne tells her a secret, that feeling that you are special because your friend has told you something, anything? Isn’t it obvious in the ragtag crews of young women that traipse through various malls across the world? Maybe the rituals of hazing/getting into the crew have changed, but wanting to belong is such a strong need at that young age.

“No one had ever looked at me before Suzanne, not really, so she had become my definition,” says Evie.

It is this type of female friendship that Cline gets most right. More than Russell’s sway over his herd, the author nails the power of female friendships.

Where a reader is likely to run into some conflicting feelings is the manner in which Cline chooses to go between present-day Evie reflecting on her days at the ranch, and of course, the days at the ranch.

The book is good reading when a reflective, mature Evie reviews herself and Suzanne, the other girls, Russell and so forth, but sometimes it distracts from the better-written everyday mundane life at the ranch that she describes. But Evie’s reflections also prove poignant. For example, she remembers thinking Suzanne wasn’t pleased to meet her the first time. Perhaps, she thinks, it was Suzanne’s way of being protective because she knew what lay ahead should the relationship take them to the ranch where one couldn’t escape Russell’s desires. On her fascination with the girls the first time she saw them, she says: “These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”

Cline successfully creates characters the readers can visualise. Her sometimes overly prolific prose may make you feel like you’re inside Suzanne’s room when Evie first enters it and documents her wardrobe, later how she sleeps and awakens, but at times you wonder if it is too verbose.

While Cline documents the relationships well, the novel is also about the cult, Russell, the members, and how they live together, their actions in and outside the ranch and of course, the crime. In a way that proves a big motivator to keep going because you know it’s coming, like a car accident about to happen that everyone but the driver can see.

For his part, Russell is how you’d imagine a cult leader to be: not handsome, but charming with his promises, in this instance of a utopian society complete with free love, a big component of the 1960s movement. “He can see through you,” a group member tells Evie right before she is to meet him for the first time. However, he’s also a demagogue and eccentric narcissist who — like Manson — will order the crime without participating in it.

The story is historical fiction meets coming-of-age meets suspense, with characters that will leave a mark. And it’s likely to get you wanting to revisit the macabre Manson story. It is refreshing to read about female friendships which are a departure from the Sweet Valley High variety and go beyond the teenage angst genre.

The reviewer is a graduate student of journalism at Northwestern University, US.

The Girls
By Emma Cline
Random House, US
ISBN: 978-0812998603

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2016


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