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The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 2016, 355 pp
Summary from Goodreads: 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, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.
I was on the fence about reading this one. Would it live up to the hype? But I like to read novels set in the 1960s, (as well as ones written then), even if the author was not born yet when the story took place. So I broke down.
In the summer of 1969, my new husband and I turned our honeymoon into a cross-country road trip, camping our way from Ann Arbor, MI, to the West Coast. It was part homage to Jack Kerouac, part cliche (many midwestern kids our age made the trek west in those years), and part career choice.
Our goal was San Francisco where we intended to join a group of hippies who were starting a Free School in the Mission District. We arrived in the city just after the Manson murders had occurred and found that several of the parents involved in the Free School were junkies! In response to both I freaked out and demanded that we return to Ann Arbor. To this day, I have been afraid to read Helter Skelter.
Emma Cline has done her research and she can write, though I found her style a little bit pretentious. I felt she tried to be literary and hip at the same time which did not always work for me.
What did work was her main character, Evie. Just out of ninth grade, on the cusp of turning 15, from a broken home, Evie is equal parts bored and horny. I remember that state well. When she meets Suzanne in a park that summer, she is immediately infatuated as only a young teen can be when meeting a slightly older, worldly, and mysterious girl. Eventually she is invited to the fictional hippy cult residence, created by Cline as a stand-in for the infamous Manson conclave.
They called it The Ranch and that whole scene worked for me too because I spent years hanging out with such people. I wasn't quite as wild as Evie but I was just as innocent.
Though Evie was not present when the murders were committed, her life is irrevocably changed. The author does an excellent job contrasting Evie's later adult life with that summer. Many of us were involved with happenings in the late 1960s that virtually poisoned the rest of our lives even while the goals and hopes of the times also blessed us with a unique view of life.
My favorite novel about this period is Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document. I don't think The Girls lives up to the greatness Spiotta created in her novel, but it is a worthy addition to the literature. As David Crosby said somewhere, "We were right about the peace and love, but we were wrong about the drugs."
I think I can read Helter Skelter now.
(The Girls is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)