This was the “It” novel of Summer, 2016.
There is a perfect review out there of this novel, and it is this New Yorker review.
Here are my thoughts: it was just okay. Not bad, just average.
I have seriously been struggling with what to write about this book. For context, I went into it knowing nothing about the Manson cult or the hinted-at violence throughout (I thought Charles Manson must be Marilyn Manson, or something). Being born in the 1990s does have its perks — I was far removed from it. Some of the people I met in college are still allured by the hippy-dippy 60s; they want to watch Across the Universe 500 times and love the Beatles and think the 60s is all full of that dreamy, easy quality. Me? I absolutely LOATHE the 1950s and 1960s, as a general rule. And this book reminded me why.
The book is called The Girls for a handful of reasons. First off, Manson’s followers in real life were often referred to as simply “the girls” in interviews and documentaries. Second, Cline does an incredible job of making this book, both subtly and not, a dissertation on femininity. This is 1969; it’s before the major breakthroughs of the 1970s feminist movement. It’s before women were respected in the workplace, before women were respected as consumers; it’s back when women still needed a husband’s permission — or signature — in order to have a sense of personal freedom. Women were commodities. Cline perfectly paints a portrait (hahaha) of the dark side to growing up female — that women are passive, waiting for someone to notice them and tell them everything they like; that there is nothing beyond their experience; that their job is to primp and preen and wait for someone to come along and give them a reason to start their life, while boys are self-assured. It’s unflinchingly honest.
The only complaint I have is the same as many others: there is not a single redeemable male in this book! They are either unable to keep their hands off the underage girls, unable to keep faithful in marriage, or exploit the girls’ insecurities and fears and use them for sexual gain at every turn. The frame story, in which Evie narrates from her middle age, is used both to illustrate that the awful things that happened during the cult years never really go away — and also, that despite the feminist achievements of the 1970s, there is still a ways to go (nothing has really changed). Again, the males in the frame story are skeevy and overpower the women even at half her age. Evie doesn’t grow up, not really, <spoiler>and there isn’t much reflection about her time in the cult. Instead, she hides away and tries to forget she was ever involved to protect herself. I was waiting for the revelation to come when she breaks down and talks to her parents about what she was involved in, but it never comes. We don’t find out what she ended up doing after boarding school, either — her career or anything else. </spoiler>
<b> The protagonist is UNSYMPATHETIC </B>
Evie is described as “thoughtful,” but she’s not. Introverted =/= Thoughtful. Evie is a selfish 14-year-old girl with recently (?) divorced parents in an upper middle class family. Her thoughtfulness is more of airheadedness mixed with self pity. That’s what we get the entire book. In the first few chapters, we’re introduced to Evie and her only friend, who she manages to alienate because <spoiler> at her friend’s house for a sleepover, she wanders into her brother’s room WHO HAS A GIRLFRIEND to try and score some sexuality points </spoiler> and having some ~normal teenage troubles~ at home, Evie acts out and starts spending more and more time with her older girl friends at the Ranch.
I should also point out that Evie should have been older than 14. Something about her age doesn’t sit well with me and I think it’s because while she’s experiencing a sexual awakening, <spoiler> I don’t think any self-aware 14-year-old would be okay with a man almost three times her age THAT SHE DOESN’T KNOW using her sexually, especially since she’s obviously in love –not girl crushing, actually infatuated with –Suzanne. </spoiler>
<b> The Writing</b>
I listened to this on audio, so I think the narration was especially grating. Many mixed reviews about Cline’s style…some think she’s brilliant, while others think it’s overdone. Clearly, I’m in the latter camp. Cline tries to say everyday things in a new and unique way. Everyone quotes the “nothing jump of soda in my throat…a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese,” for a reason, because that’s how the book starts and HOLY HELLS it continues the entire book! There were times that I was listening and was like “Woah, WHAT is she actually saying there?” Like “mossed with cheese.” I had to STOP and THINK about what mossy cheese would look like. And it just stops the entire book while you think about it. Cline likes to adverb words and use sentence fragments to conjure imagery. It’s not bad, but it’s kinda amateur to be honest. I think my major problem with the writing is that there was no <i> reason</i> other than Cline showing off to write it this way. I just finished <i> Loner </i> and it was narrated by an egotistical, introverted Harvard freshman — yes of COURSE the prose was overdone! The same goes for <i> Infinite Jest,</i> where half the narration is by tennis prodigy and Extremely Capable Intellectual and Memorizer of the OED Hal Incandenza. When you have intellectual, smart, gifted people narrating (or characters who are actually authors), then you whip out the fancy phrasing. However, there was no indication that Evie was particularly smart or interesting, so it sounds completely out of whack for her to describe things in this way.
<b>If Cline wanted to narrate in her own style, she should’ve made it third-person. End of story. </B>. But because it’s Evie’s voice, I’m not sold on the style. I would expect clumsy, juvenile speech, not Creative Writing Major Collegiate.
<b> The Cult Life </b>
One complaint I have, even though Cline does mention that she wanted to write it this way, is that Evie is the bystander. She’s not just the bystander to violence, she’s the bystander to everything in the cult. Her relationships don’t get beyond surface level. Besides a couple scenes of her at the ranch, there is not much to say about life there. You don’t get much insight about the relationships the women had with Russell besides Cline repeatedly telling us that the girls light up and jump to attention whenever he’s around, fighting quietly for his approval. You don’t learn anything about the followers — not where they came from, their inner thoughts, their reasons for staying — only some vignettes about them hanging around the ranch interspersed with vignettes of Evie’s increasingly immoral behavior, which doesn’t amount to much. You could get a better picture from watching some documentaries and interviews with the actual girls that were there. This book was the “it” book of 2016’s summer because it was based on the Manson cult — everyone knew that going in. So why the lack of proper cult immersion? Evie is never indoctrinated, not really; Evie’s motivations are purely selfish. She wants to impress Suzanne.
I did think that Cline did an excellent job with the girls’ dialogue, though. You can absolutely get lost in the dialogue, and it’s creepy how, when compared with interviews with the actual Family, it’s almost exactly on point.
<b> In Conclusion </B>
This book did get me interested in the Manson Family subject, so that’s something; it’s mainly because as we all know — there was no motive for this crime. How did these young women get so caught up in the cult…enough to kill? Are drugs the culprits?!
Next on my list is <i> Helter Skelter, </i> supposedly the best crime book after <i>In Cold Blood.</i>