“The Girls” tells gripping fictional account of Manson-like cult

Anna McCreary

Evie Boyd’s parents are divorcing and she’s had a fight with her best friend Connie. She’s 14 and it’s the start of summer vacation, so she does what any teenager with too much angst does — she joins a cult.

Evie gets swept up in the hazy bliss of her quasi-family and is aware of her mistake only a page too late. “The Girls,” the debut novel by Emma Cline, is based on the Manson family’s infamous string of murders in 1969 and captures audiences’ attention from the get-go. Part of what makes the book so all-consuming is that Cline’s prose is delivered with such dreamy cadence that the signs screaming “cult” at times slip by the reader as easily as they get past Evie.

Bored and unsatisfied with her ordinary life, Evie begins her downward spiral when she first spots Suzanne flashing strangers in public with her group of boisterous friends laughing along. Evie watches as they dig through dumpsters, get run off by a store owner and disappear into a black-painted school bus. She’s immediately entranced by their actions. It becomes clear to her that everything she’d glimpsed briefly in those girls — the danger, the carelessness, the camaraderie — is what’s missing from her own life.

When Evie later sees Suzanne getting reprimanded and thrown out by a grocery store owner for stealing toilet paper, Evie rushes after her, toilet paper in hand. When Suzanne then offers to show Evie around their ranch in exchange for her favor, it’s the invitation Evie’s been waiting for.

The ranch is, in reality, a run-down, crumbling house where underfed young girls listen to bad guitar playing, smoke joints, wade through stolen goods and talk dreamily about love. Russell, the cult’s ringleader, tells her that giving up one’s own needs to live and love communally is the only way to real love, and Evie takes the bait.

The novel is split between the perspectives of Evie’s 14-year-old and nearly 50-year-old selves. In her middle age, Evie is able to reflect on the things she overlooked in her youth and the dreadful things she would have done to be loved by these people. But mostly, she thinks about Suzanne. Though the book’s cult theme is a source of dark chaos throughout the story, the gentle intimacy of Evie and Suzanne’s relationship is a relaxing change of pace, and gives the narrative a much needed breath of fresh air.

From the beginning, the narrative promises gruesome death. And it delivers, but predictably so. For a story with what would seem like an engrossing plot, Russell’s cult is actually one of the novel’s least interesting features. The dramatic climax is foretold in exactly the same way it later unfolds. Evie’s involvement is reactionary at best, and she becomes a spectator in the story’s ultimately disturbing turning point.

But “The Girls” succeeds mainly due to its sharp, well-crafted prose. Evie’s reflections are introspective and serenely, chaotically beautiful. Her centerfold relationship with Suzanne is haunting but so victoriously effective that readers will come close to empathizing with Evie, despite her dark path.  

Emma Cline’s debut novel crashes in with devastating psychological impact, reflecting the grim realities of girlhood and the ugly truth of what people will do to be loved.

  • “The Girls”
  • Length: 355 pages
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Rating: 4/5