Everyone is looking for love. It doesn’t matter if they call it something else like acceptance or respect. Deep down what they are looking for is someone to love them. Even people who claim they don’t care what people think are looking for it. They’re hoping that the barriers and personas they build will draw love to them. There are also those who, unable to find it close by, look for love in the wrong places. Evie, the protagonist in Emma Cline‘s debut novel The Girls, is one of them.
The novel begins in present day. Evie is now a middle aged woman and her life has grown stagnant. She drifts through life without any real purpose. She has never quite recovered from the events of her childhood.
She reminisces back to the late 60’s in California just as the wave of the hippie movement is about to break. Evie is 14 and is on the verge of puberty. She rarely sees either of her divorced parents and she is a ghost in her mother’s mansion.
One day as she floats around town, she catches a glimpse of a group of carefree girls. With one look, she loses herself in them. She sees the potential to be more than what she is and she follows them down the rabbit hole. Before long she is out of her depth and face to face with their commune and its prophetic leader, Russell. Evie is 14 and she is in love.
I’ve always had a fascination with cults. I knew immediately that I would read this book when I first heard about it. I don’t know why I find cults so interesting. Perhaps it’s the idea that almost everyone is only one bad day from joining a cult. Or that so many people who are in one don’t realize it until they’ve already taken a drink of the Kool Aid.
It’s a slow slide into the extreme. It’s like that experiment on frogs in boiling water. If you put it right in, it hops out, but if you bring the water to a boil over time, it will stay in and die. I feel like no one sets out to join a cult. They are only ever looking for some acceptance or love.
The specific cult in The Girls is a pretty clear fictionalization of The Manson Family. I won’t go into much detail as not to spoil it, but if you know the history of The Manson Family, then you know what happens.
By not making it the Manson Family in the novel, I thought that Cline had the perfect chance to humanize them. Most representations of Charles Manson or anyone in the Family are of pure monsters or devils.
Instead she introduces a group of people all looking for the things they couldn’t find in their lives. As for Russell, the Charles Manson facsimile, he isn’t a demon with a swastika on his forehead. He’s just a shitty, manipulative dude. Through Evie’s eyes he’s a dreamy leader but Cline also exposes the cracking facade.
The manipulation of love plays a predominant role in the novel. Everyone uses love as a tool to get what they want. It has a trickle down effect.
Russell uses the girls’ love to get them to do what he wants. The girls then use the same process with Evie. Evie learns that she too can use the love of others to get what she wants. Love is power, only not the way in which the hippies had intended.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I first opened the book. I’m sure it was something like passing a car accident on the side of the motorway. My neck stretching to see the gory details of crumpled metal. Instead I got a glimpse of something quite different. I saw the car pick up speed and start to swerve. I heard the conversations that lead to the wrong turn towards the inevitable. Instead of a split second worth of gratuitous carnage I bore witness to the much more tragic. The unending pursuit of love.