“I waited to be told what was good about me”

Review: Emma Cline's Debut Novel, "The Girls"

“I’m interested in this moment on the cusp of adulthood—when we encounter how the world treats women and girls—and what it means to be a girl in the world,” Emma Cline told The Paris Review on her coming-of-age novel, The Girls. “That age somehow has both a kind of innocence and a burgeoning awareness.”

In her debut novel, The Girls, Emma Cline shines a light on girlhood in all its messiness and wonder through her blend of boldness and finesse. We are taken into the spirit of Evie Boyd, a lonely, “average-looking” teenager who has been essentially left to fend for herself by her divorced mother. She seeks adventure, or at least something better than licking batteries in order “to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.” One day in the park, Evie spies on a group of girls with thrifted-dresses, tangled hair, and bare feet. She is enthralled by their wild aura and impulsivity, a sharp contrast to her monotonous, middle-class suburban life.

The Girls is loosely based on the story of Charles Manson and his young female followers who ultimately assisted him in the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends. Russell Hadrick is Evie’s Charles Manson, and she is drawn into this similarly delusional narcissist’s cult, hidden in the hills of Northern California. She is hypnotized by the daredevil nature of Russell’s ranch and his girls. We watch her transformation from sluggish adolescence to young woman caught in the frenzied purpose of someone else’s delusion.  

More than anything, The Girls is a depiction of the inner life of girls – their particular blend of yearning and self-denigration, their impulses and the constraints they impose upon themselves, their confusion as to how to measure their worth. Cline’s scintillating prose enables her to craft a world of girlhood for the reader. Evie’s thoughts frankly detail all of the insecurities and sentiments that so many experience.

Cline aptly evokes what it means to be on the brink of adulthood and the awkward plight of the teenage girl. We can see Evie struggle with this innocence and flourishing awareness, and we can easily relate to it. In The Girls, Evie’s first-person narration is so immediate and blunt that her language imparts the novel with it’s energy and power. She observes the way “words slit with scientific desire” and “houseboats knocking peaceably against each other, like ice cubes.” Cline’s metaphors animate the monotony of Evie’s adolescence in language that is all at once stunningly visceral. The imagery serves as an electric force for the reader that authentically captures a teenager’s consciousness as well as Cline’s mastery of language.

In all of its curiosities, anxieties and rebellions, the female psyche is illustrated through Evie’s transformation from girl into woman. “I waited to be told what was good about me,” Evie confesses to the reader. “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.” Her experiences with the cult may be unique, but Cline still captures the universal desire for acceptance, love, and adventure in young girls.

What is missing, however, is the historical timeline that the plot is so centered around. The characters and the events that occur in The Girls are part of a larger context – the teeming chaos of the sixties. Yet, the details of the time feel patchy and incompletely illustrated. While contemporary readers are able to identify with the characters, they are unable to fully place themselves in the setting. Her references to the events surrounding the Manson murders of the late 60’s are thin and fragmentary. That being said, Cline so brilliantly fleshes out the characters in the novel and captures the Evie’s psyche that the historical elements are unnecessary.

Emma Cline writes as an artist; she writes the mundane with a flourish, capturing the universal sense of girl culture with a fresh voice. Undoubtedly, The Girls is a timeless story.