“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.”
My Thoughts: The Girls is Emma Cline’s first novel, and yet there is nothing about the novel to suggest this fact. The entire story exemplifies mature writing. Ms. Cline never beats readers over the head with her themes, her messages, or anything else. Hers is a nuanced story that creates a similar obsession to Evie’s within readers. She also makes the story about more than the cult, for the emotions and experiences Evie has are ones with which most female readers will be familiar. Evie’s story is as much a coming-of-age story as it is an awakening of female awareness and the role society has created for females.
Note that The Girls is an emotional book. We see Evie as a young girl, in the first stages of teenage rebellion, searching for a new identity and craving excitement in a way only teenagers can. We also see Evie as an adult, coming to gripes with her past. Both versions of Evie are raw and desperate; young Evie is desperate for love, while older Evie is desperate for peace. Both are supremely angry, and both leave a significant impression on a reader. In addition, these are not superficial emotions. These are raw, visceral, and barely-contained emotions that can make reading the novel difficult at times because of their intensity.
The emotions are not the only things that are intense. Cult life is consuming; Evie’s relationship with Suzanne is equally so. The duties of the girls on the ranch are disturbing, and it becomes way too clear at just how easy it is to manipulate the right type of person with something as simple as attention, ritual, and rhetoric. Ms. Cline uses this depressing backdrop of abject poverty and hero worship to frame Evie’s past and present, define friendship, and derive some unsettling truths about responsibility of one’s actions.
The Girls is not an easy book to read, and yet the conclusions to which Ms. Cline leads readers are vital. While the action takes place on the ranch and surrounding this cult, the story has universal appeal in regards to its messaging. In fact, the lessons about identity, belonging, cause and effect, and the lasting impact of one intimate relationship are profound and downright chilling. The Girls not only lives up to the hype, it surpasses it and really is one of the must-read books of the year.