By Emma Cline
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.
We meet Evie Boyd in a waystation, housesitting for a friend when she hears voices in the house in the middle of the night. Part of her wants to lie still and accept whatever fate may befall her but she gets up and discovers her friend’s son with his girlfriend in tow. She recognizes him and is relieved, and in an attempt to remind this suddenly grown young man of who she is, he remembers – she’s that girl with that cult. This simple, terrifying situation – strangers in a house and the knowledge of what could be done – effortlessly builds the first bookend for the story.
Evie was fourteen the summer she met the group who lived on the hard-scrabble ranch. Cline’s descriptions of adolescent yearning are spot on. The inability to know what to do with your feelings. The posturing for attention. The need to be seen. Evie experiments with these feelings through her best friend’s older brother. But then she sees Suzanne, one of the girls from the ranch, and her attention lands there. Cline doesn’t draw a clear line to identify Evie’s feelings; they simply are what they are and they influence her mightily.
Abandoning her best friend and her divorced parents, Evie begins to spend more time at the ranch under the thrall of Suzanne and Russell, a Manson-like leader. She takes on their beliefs – rejecting her mother’s inherited money even as she steals from her to give to the group – and their lifestyle – dumpster diving and clothes sharing are common occurrences.
The danger builds slowly as Evie is brought into seemingly innocent situations that she begins to realize are worse than they seem, such as breaking into someone’s home not to steal something but to move things slightly, disconcerting the homeowner just because you can. She becomes more complicit with each act until she runs away to live at the ranch, throwing her lot in with them.
As Evie is on the periphery and fourteen during the events of the story, her knowledge of the capabilities of the group is imperfect and spotty. She is even left behind during the climactic event (again, think Manson here) by Suzanne, maybe to keep her safe, maybe because she’s mad at Evie.
Her childhood brush with violence unsettles the rest of her life. She moves from job to job, town to town, spending up her inherited money. She can still be pulled into the thrall of a cool girl’s attention, which is displayed in one sad scene with Evie and the girlfriend crashing at the house go out to dinner. All Evie wants is to be seen, but there is also danger in being seen.
The Girls is a complex view into an adolescent girl’s mind and how easily a wish for attention can go astray. The language is at times lyrical, at others, tense, depending on the mood Cline wants to create. The ending bookends nicely with the opening scene to create a structure to explore hazy feelings.