Published by Random House on June 14, 2016
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Fifteen years ago I read Helter Skelter, the comprehensive book detailing Charles Manson, his followers, and the horrific murders they committed. I remember reading it when my parents were out of town – racing through the pages all through the night and sleeping during the daytime because I was afraid to go to sleep under the cover of darkness. Some of the most haunting passages described how they would enter people’s houses while they were sleeping to move things from one bedside table to the other or leave a light on – little things that would throw a person off but not so drastic that they would have known someone was there. To this day, I think about this when my keys aren’t where I think they are or if a shoe is knocked askew on my shoe rack.
So when I learned (a little late) that The Girls by Emma Cline was based on the Manson murders, I knew I had to read it. Even so, I had hesitations. I didn’t know a lot about the book going into it but I was wary about the author’s approach. How much of the story would parallel real events? Would the book live up to its expectations? Would it be written in a way that capitalizes on the murders in a cheap and frivolous way? My fears, however, were quickly laid to rest; the story stays true to the real events and the author takes a very measured approach in how she tells it.
The Girls tells the story of Evie, a 14-year old who is experiencing typical teenage problems. Her parents are divorced and her mom is dating again, which distracts her. Her dad is out of town with a younger wife. Evie and her best friend are having differences of opinions. And, of course, there are boy troubles. But when Evie first sets eyes on Suzanne, an older girl who exudes type type of careless confidence that we were all drawn to as teenagers, things begin to change. Circumstances allow for Evie to begin spending time with Suzanne, who lives on a ranch with others shirking modern conveniences, and she’s drawn into their world.
Their world, however, is radically different from Evie’s own. They don’t have a lot of money, so they dumpster dive and rely on the kindnesses of others. They don’t have individual possessions – everything is shared. Their ethics are questionable but because everything is done for the good of the community, seemingly poor decisions are considered acceptable. The community is run by Russell, a charming man whom the women all adore (and also share). But when Russell is faced with his own shortcomings, his followers rally to his side and commit an atrocious crime to redeem his reputation.Loosely based on the Manson murders, The Girls tells the story of one girl's spiral into a new way of life. Click To Tweet
I was drawn into this book immediately. Cline’s descriptions of people, places, and feelings were palpable and I could taste the salty air and smell the stench of the ranch as I was reading it. Cline, who was in her early 20’s when she wrote this (her own story is pretty fascinating), takes the reader by the hand and walks them through the story, stopping off at various points to add dimension to the characters. Although we primarily see things through Evie’s eyes (both as a teenager and an adult), we also see how friends and family see her, which allows us to better understand how and why she was drawn into Suzanne’s world.
That said, what captivated me the most was way Cline told the story through Evie’s eyes. Anyone who is familiar with the real events will appreciate how delicately Cline walks the line between fiction and reality. While Evie is fictional, the events surrounding her are based on fact and it’s easy to forget that Evie is not a real person. Reading The Girls was like watching the real events from inside of a fish bowl. I had a 360-degree view of what was happening but the truth was dull and muted. Evie serves as a reminder that even good people can get caught up in the allure of rebellion, never quite knowing exactly what they are getting into until it’s too late. And it makes you wonder, can you ever really know what you’d do in a situation until you are in it?
Recommended for: Anyone interested in a fairly accurate retelling of the Manson Family through the eyes of a fictional character caught up in it.