The Girls: A Literary Study of Cult Culture and the Adolescent Heart by Elena Giardina

It’s 1969 and the social phenomenon that is the summer of love is two years long gone. The flower crowns and hazy fragmented memories bleed into the later 60s, but along the way the “make love, not war” incentive and surreal psychedelic subculture speed into a ferocious end that begins in California and ripples outwards to the entire country.

In her debut novel based on the Manson cult, The Girls, Emma Cline sets the story of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd against a backdrop of evils simmering behind a seemingly peaceful mysticism. Evie, a girl who is coming of age in a monotonous loop of summer in the Californian suburbs, is suddenly jolted out of the normalities of her own life when she latches onto a group of older girls she meets in the beginning of a summer that could’ve been identical to all summers before if she hadn’t met them.

These girls, the girls, are wild and, to Evie, they are completely free. One day, the peculiar creatures that foster Evie’s growing obsession invite her into their van as well as their lifestyle. Amongst meeting Donna, Helen, and Roos, Evie finally meets the dark-haired girl that has been flitting through her mind like a flame: Suzanne. Suzanne draws Evie into her sticky spider web and binds her in grey silken cobwebs made of power, sex, excitement, acceptance, and love- what Evie Boyd craves.

With the character of Evie Boyd, Emma Cline examines the inner workings of the teenage female mind with a brilliantly untamed truthfulness. Evie is motivated by a need of human acceptance. She is at an age where she is blooming, yet she constantly feels repulsive and unwanted. She is a young girl who sees everyone as an example of what she is not; a young girl who seeks validation in every crack in the wall and corner of the room. When she arrives at the ranch, Evie’s feelings and notions intensify.

The ranch is the girls’ home- a place where violence bubbles in the greasy bedsheets and in the worn cotton dresses. It is a run down structure occupied by equally run down people. It lives within the girls as they are controlled by their leader- a man they refer to as Russell. Russell is the Charles Manson figure in Cline’s novel- holding power over the youths staying at the ranch in a way that one might hold a red light over the nose of a feline. He is intense and magnifying, and as his powers take effect on Evie, she unknowingly becomes entangled in life on the Ranch.

As Evie spends more time on the Ranch and less time in her mundane place in society, her mind is shaped by Suzanne and the Ranch atmosphere. Cline uses the Ranch as a symbol of the declining decade and the concept of obsession itself. Alike to Evie’s perception of Suzanne, the Ranch’s every flaw is glorified. As her fixation on Suzanne escalates, she reaches the borderline of a controlled life she always knew and a life filled with bursting violence and unhinged emotions.

Writing with a lusty mellowness, Emma Cline details the rising action of a girl approaching inconceivable violence. She enters a part of the teenage mind that most writers dare not explore and elucidates the fascinating vulnerability of the adolescent heart. With her unique coming-of-age story, Emma Cline pays tribute to young girls stuck in the tedium of juvenescence who realize that what goes on in their minds is taboo.

She details cult culture with the Manson cult as a model and does so with vivid and vibrant prose. Cline describes the emotions of unleashing from a previous life to speed towards a new one as if she had done so herself. The Girls changes the standards of letting go, redefines the values of adolescence, and examines the hidden ferocity of the human mind with a brilliance that is more scary than comforting.