It doesn’t surprise me that this debut novel currently ranks 79 in Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers. It deserves to climb and shine amongst its literary competitors. A friend of mine loaned me this book recently, in hardback, and hearing it was set in the late Sixties, having a fascination for that era, my interest was piqued. The premise of an adolescent girl getting drawn into a hippie subculture with echoes of the Charles Manson murders – an extra draw. However, the real trip for me was the ‘voice’ of this 26-year-old author. Cline – from California, where the novel is set, has crafted a distinct poetic timbre that devises similes galore to augment the imagery and the protagonist’s insight. Driven by the narration of Evie Boyd, I was soon by her side, in her thoughts, and easily transported to her somnolent Petaluma hometown and wilds of Sonoma County farm-belt land.
Definitely one to recline to, reading this on sunny days dreamily complemented the epoch, setting, and that lazy-dazed feel of a long, hot, Californian Summer. Cline enlists a plethora of intricate details and The Girlswould be well worthy of being made into a film. It flits back and forth from Evie’s middle-aged self — present time, to when a fourteen-year-old, desperate to grow up and be noticed; something most people can identify with.
It’s mostly reflective, and Evie has gained some notoriety for having been associated with ‘the girls’ from a commune; particularly those who ended up carrying out savage acts. The spiralling linear works beautifully in weaving in and out of the present and past as she recounts the summer that shaped her when on the cusp of going to boarding school. What happened in 1969 has left Evie in a perpetual state of chariness and ritual unsettlement.
‘The girls’ rumoured to be degenerates and part of a frenzied cult, are young women cohabiting outside of Evie’s town; runaways sucked into breaking free from social constraints, class, graces, materialisms – pilfering for food and cavorting barefoot in ragged clothes; men communing too, but predominantly females – some with children, so Evie discovers.
After sighting three of them, Evie finds herself mostly attracted to and enthralled by the raven-haired ringleader — Suzanne Parker. “She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty. And what had the girl seen when she looked at me?”
There are connotations of sexual attraction, more a toying on Suzanne’s part than the deeper affection and longing from Evie. She feels/felt Suzanne, five years older, is/was the first person in a long time to really show some interest, and is wanton and gullible because of eagerness to break away from the banality of her home life and best friend Connie; the spoils with her mother – re-partnered. She escapes that for spates of staying with the girls after being taken to ‘the ranch’; the ramshackle abode where they reside in squalor. All put to labour, they willingly indulge hallucinogenic highs amongst others, and sate the sexual needs of their much-revered leader, Russell Hadrick; a rising star with the air of some prophet instilling a new religion, or rather anarchistic ideals. The girls believe in his teachings and talent, despite his delusions of grandeur.
Like Manson was, Russell is also an aspiring singer/songwriter – trying to secure the big deal through a celebrity connection, so the story loses points for originality. I would have liked a little more grit and detail in the spearhead devil himself, but Russell comes and goes in shrouds of phantom-esque mystery; spellbinding to his female devotees. However, Evie’s desire to belong and gratify, is more for Suzanne, and although accepted as an insider, is/was free to come and go; never tethered to the ranch as I’d expected. Therefore, it makes for an interesting retrospection how she struggled to juxtapose her more familial life with the feral, otherworldly existence. Fleeting yet pivotal, marking her coming of age; her loss of innocence disturbing and the fact she was on the precipice of being involved in heinous, premeditated crime. It was Cline’s intention to portray the slight outsider’s perspective of almost being involved, and it kind of works that Russell, Suzanne and her co-conspirators remain unpeeled to their cores.
I empathised with vulnerable ‘teenage’ Evie; that angst and need to find her rite of passage and a kindred spirit; an older, sisterly role model perhaps? However, I needed to feel more anger from her adult self for the fact she was groomed, by Russell, even Suzanne when later loaned for sexual favours — and that she almost became embroiled in Russell’s vilest indoctrinations where others avenged on his behalf. But there’s a swell of forgiveness and she realises, Suzanne had spared her, so likely she genuinely cared.
The climax was a little flat for me and had the same lull as the preamble, the languorous pace hardly wavering, but it’s told from Evie’s imaginings of what exactly happened when all she had to go on were media reports. Bearing that in mind, I can excuse the lack of impact. It’s not a high-action story with many heightened conflicts. In fact, that plot aside, the story centres on identity and friendships: dismissed, sought, cherished, tainted and absolved. And all this throughout Evie’s sexual awakening whilst trying to adjust to changes: physical, psychological and her evolving home front, beyond her control — such as her mother’s fads and father’s younger partner.
“At first, she seemed unhappy with my presence. The awkward hug she offered, like she was grimly accepting the task of being my new mother. And I was disappointed, too. She was just a girl, not the exotic woman I’d one imagined—everything I’d thought was special about her was actually just proof of what Russell would call a straight world trip.”
There is much focus on the need to pierce a person’s psyche, gain trust, love, to be like whomever one is in awe of and the unspoken in actions and reactions. Cline pins these various human traits and perceptions with mature, precise contemplation, and that is more riveting and powerful than the gruesome minutiae in this instance. Stories that penetrate one’s questioning of humanity and purpose never date, and Evie’s brief period of motived rebellion serves as the perfect interim before she’s packed off to the institution of her mother’s footsteps and becomes more tractable.
I was engaged until the end, sad for Evie’s sense of antiheroic guilt and hopelessness in her overall outlook on life, but I wasn’t heartbroken. I didn’t cry. Nonetheless, there were smidgens of sighs, the odd snort of mirth or disgust. I thoroughly appreciated the provocative, exhilarating language and syntax; the missing details crisply inferred – ergo, left to my imagination.
Inspired, I look forward to reading more from this highly talented author. I will indeed re-Cline.
Have you read 'The Girls'? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!