The Girls by Emma Cline
Over two nights in August 1969, members of the Manson family, who were mostly women, murdered multiple people in the Tate and Labianca households. They weren’t caught until December of that year, and when they were the nation was shocked. The culprits were young, female hippies. The age of the happy, free love hippie prototype was over, replaced by something much darker. How could these young girls be dragged into such a disturbing environment where they would follow any command their leader said, no matter how evil?
Emma Cline tries to answer that question in her book The Girls. I’m not entirely sure she succeeded. While it is a work of fiction Cline draws heavily from her fascination with the Manson cult, and how it attracted such blind devotion. Our protagonist is Evie Boyd, and she is drawn into a cult-like compound via the titular girls. But really, for Evie, it’s just one girl – Suzanne. She is drawn to Suzanne immediately, and wants more than anything for Suzanne to like her and maybe miss her when she’s gone. That’s…kind of the extent of it. Although Evie admits that there is a certain charisma to Russell, their leader, it’s Suzanne that keeps her coming back to the ranch the girls call home.
But we never really delve into the why of it. Sure, Evie’s parents are going through a divorce and she feels ignored, looked through as if she’s invisible. She doesn’t seem to fully connect to her only friend Connie anymore. But is that enough to drive her to a commune where the girls share crumbling clothes and scrounge for food in dumpsters? Evie is only fourteen so maybe that’s all it takes. But what is it about Suzanne that pulls Evie in so completely? Does she have romantic feelings for her? We don’t know. Why is Suzanne there in the first place? Or any of the other girls? We don’t know. Cline touches on the way girls and women feel there is a limited way to act, a limited way to respond to uncomfortable advances, and how the resentment of this fact can build up into immense anger over time. Evie wonders if this is what propelled Suzanne. But that’s glossed over in a matter of a few words.
I didn’t hate the book but I did finish it feeling underwhelmed especially after all the buzz it got pre-release. I expected a deeper dive into the psyche of a teen girl drawn to a cult. But we don’t really get that, and the novel teases a climax that doesn’t really happen. Evie, spoiler alert, doesn’t participate in any sort of violence. She’s not even there when it happens. While she ponders what she would’ve been capable of had she been there, we the readers will never know. Cline sets up an interesting premise but fails to fully explore it.
American Girls by Alison Umminger
Fifteen year old Anna runs away from her Atlanta home all the way to Los Angeles where her actress sister lives. After the initial freak out it’s decided that Anna will stay there and earn money to pay back her stepmom Lynette for the plane ticket she bought with Lynette’s credit card. She does this by working for Roger, her sister’s ex-boyfriend and current director, researching the Manson girls involved with the infamous cult murders. Roger wants to know what made them tick, what made them do the awful things they did.
As Anna starts working, she is dragged around town by her sister Delia to sets and even makes friends with one half of a popular tv sibling duo. At times it feels slightly outlandish but I suppose if your sister is an actress it’s not terribly unrealistic. While the setup is very different from The Girls there are some similarities. Both novels attempt to dig into the thought process of teen cult members and both have teenage narrators who feel adrift from their families. However, I liked Anna quite a bit more than Evie. Although at times obnoxious and bratty, Anna had so much more personality than flat Evie that it would be hard not to prefer her.
Anna tries to figure out all those Manson girls, and while she doesn’t answer the question she does seem to get closer than Evie did. Maybe it’s because Evie is so blasé about her situation while Anna seems to care deeply. She sees a lot of parallels between her sister and any number of Manson girls. Not-so-great childhood, terrible choices in men and decision making, low self-esteem, all the usual suspects. Anna thinks back to the cruel texts she’d sent to a classmate for no reason at all other than to please her best friend. She wonders if the path the women eventually take began with something that small.
It’s not a five star story but I do think it is more engaging than The Girls. Maybe I would’ve liked it less if I hadn’t just finished The Girls and felt disappointed, I don’t know. It would be interesting to see how someone like Anna would react in Evie’s shoes. She would’ve definitely expressed her feelings more, good or bad. I finished American Girls feeling that Anna would take her summer experiences and try to learn from them and maybe use them to be a better person. Evie, on the other hand, felt pretty much the same at the end of her book (when she’s middle aged) as she did throughout (when she’s a teenager). If I had to recommend either I would go with American Girls. It’s a quick read full of varying personalities, dark humor, and an engaging protagonist.