By Emma Cline
Cline’s fine debut is at its heart a coming of age novel about a fourteen-year-old girl from a broken home with a mother hunting for a man, willing to mold herself to his desires, and pretty much leaving her daughter, Evie, to her own doings. The themes here are adolescent angst, self-esteem problems, and loneliness. Emma, and the other girls of the novel, Suzanne, Helen, and Donna, all young, share these issues to different degrees.
They live in a state of psychological dilemma that make them prime prey for a charismatic cult leader, someone who can divine their needs and weakness, supply the answers and solace they seek, and thus turn them to satisfying his own personal desires. Charlie Manson was just this kind of demon, and Russell of the novel works like a brother to him, with the plot loosely following the Manson family trajectory to sensual murders.
You could be forgiven for imagining Emma Dumont playing Emma Karn as a model for Evie because in some ways Cline’s novel mirrors the setting, family situation, and Manson family tie-in of the television show Aquarius, minus the clutter and distraction of the police drama and the Sixties decor. The driving force of Cline’s novel, though, is not so much the period but very much the desire of Evie to be loved and accepted. Cline’s novel is also admirable in how she focuses in on Evie’s attraction to the girls, particularly Suzanne, for whom she holds a nearly fatal fascination. The dynamic of their relationship, not to mention how it shatters Evie’s life, comprise the heart of the novel; it sets the novel apart, certainly from more superficial television and novelistic renderings of cult attraction, and makes The Girls a worthwhile psychological exploration of teen anxiety in a complicated and rebellious time.
This being billed as a literary psychological thriller a few words about what else makes The Girls a very gratifying reading experience: Cline’s impressive descriptive powers, ability to capture Evie’s emotions, and her skillful bending of language, especially words, all of which give the novel a feeling of uniqueness and tense drive. What Cline has accomplished in her first novel isn’t easy, particularly when your subject skates on the edges of genre and sensationalism. Wonder what she’ll do in her second. w/c