I’m really obsessed with cults. I know, I know, that makes me sound like the ultimate emo creep. But it’s true. They’re just so fascinating! I’m really intrigued as to how someone gets sucked into the commune lifestyle, abandons their family and friends, and blindly follows a savior, who inevitably is a decently attractive, charismatic, middle-aged white man. It’s just so hard for me to wrap my brain around, which makes it all that much more interesting. Thanks to my slightly sociopathic obsession, I’ve seen my fair share of cult documentaries, shows, books, etc. and I was super pumped to get my hands on one of the summer’s trendiest books, The Girls, by Emma Cline.
The Girls parallels the story of Charles Manson and his family almost to a T. I think maybe this is why I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected. I was hoping for a more imaginative story, or at least some great insight as to the secrets of the family and their lifestyle. But, being already pretty familiar with the Manson case, I didn’t find this storyline especially shocking.
Evie Boyd opens the novel in modern day, reflecting on her former life as a part of the “family.” She flashes back to age 14 where she is living a life pretty typical of a teenager in the late 60’s. Her parents are divorced, she is an only child, and she spends her days in suburban California drinking beers in her best friend’s basement, gossiping about girls at school and crushing on the upperclassmen boys. There is nothing especially remarkable about her life, but also nothing horrendous enough for me to buy her slipping into the claws of a murderous cult.
Evie happens upon a group of hippie older girls, with whom she is immediately infatuated. The center of her obsession is Suzanne, the 17-year old female leader. She develops what can only be described as a massive crush on Suzanne, hanging on her every word, doing everything she says. Suzanne and the girls bring Evie back to “the ranch,” where she meets, and, unsurprisingly, hooks up with Russell, aka Charles Manson. Evie becomes a daily fixture at the ranch, and gets away with always being gone from home by telling her mom she’s sleeping over at her best friend’s. This is another thing that didn’t really make much sense to me in the book; even a somewhat absentee mother would start to think it odd after not seeing her daughter practically the entire summer. And the author does nothing to make us think that Evie’s mom is abusive, an alcoholic, plain old horrible, etc. How does Evie become a full fledged member of a cult with her normal-ish mom not even realizing she’s missing? Anyway, I digress.
Evie’s story continues with the family slowly unravelling, eventually to the point of homicide, just as we know to be true in the case of the Manson followers. Sans Helter Skelter. And then that’s just kind of the end. (Did I just ruin it?)
While the literature and prose of this book was gorgeous, I just didn’t love the story nearly as much as I wanted to. And I desperately wanted to love it. I was expecting this book to be one of my favorites of all time, but I found myself struggling to push through certain dry parts. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t amazing. Now, if you’re looking for a stellar first-person life-in-a-cult account, check out Holy Hell on Netflix. One of the best cult documentaries I’ve seen (and again, I’ve seen a lot.) Hours of footage and testimonies from folks actually living inside a cult (for 22 years!!!!!) I’ll let you have that nugget of info for free.
3 out of 5 stars.