Review | The Girls by Emma Cline

Do the people we love feel the same way? Do they even notice us? Either way, The Girls begins as narrator Evie is disturbed by intruders in the middle of the night. The house she is staying is not her own and the episode stirs up vivid memories of a murder in 1960s California. When the intruders turn out to be Julian, the teenage son of the house’s proprietor and his girlfriend Sasha, Evie is unexpectedly drawn out of herself in conversation with the young woman. As it turns out, Julian has some knowledge of Evie’s involvement with a mysterious hippie collective which is a cultural reference point for the two teenagers. After he departs on a weed run, Evie reminisces on her time at the ranch and openly discusses her near implication in a notorious murder case.

Though Suzanne, the other denizens of the ranch and their black school bus bear a striking resemblance to the Manson family, theirs is not the story Cline sets out to tell. Instead of an extended, grisly narrative account of murderous cult members and their quirks, we are given insight into Evie alienated childhood and her experience of the ranch. Cline cooly delineates the nature of forum-based speculation on the banal details of the murder early on, though does taps into our voyeuristic tendencies. She uses these tendencies to draw the reader into an environment where women are starved of attention and love. Evie is a witness involved in life at the latterly notorious ranch and yet on the fringes of its intriguing climax.

Of those who have written about the real life events, Joan Didion’s accounts of her own depressed young adulthood in 1950s California evokes a similarly listless and insular atmosphere in which societal pressure looms large. However, when it comes to the summer of 1969, Didion’s narrative sweep is broad and from a largely comfortable distance. Kline’s narrator is intimately involved in events and is only a car ride away from being fully implicated.

Emma Cline
Emma Cline; highly anticipated debut. Source

Loneliness pervades Evie’s early adolescent life as she is first drawn to Suzanne, one of a number of girls living with the mysterious Russell on a ranch near her Petaluma home. She is emotionally neglected by her parents, and her stifling relationship with her best friend, Connie, begins to withdraw. She becomes more reclusive and takes to drinking during the long afternoons at home. Through her interactions with Suzanne, Evie begins to feel the attention she has been missing.


She is quickly inducted into life at the ranch, where Suzanne and the other girls appear to exist in orbit around Russell. While Russell is undoubtedly an exploitative figure, Kline does not create an easy scenario in which Suzanne and the other are completely absolved. Disturbing sexual encounters are complicated by Evie’s insistence that she wanted to be there, and in the present day Evie reflects on whether she may have done something herself.

Though Evie is reminiscing from a distance of decades, it seems that even in the moment she was collecting detail. The narrative is layered and complex, as even the young Evie seems to be an astute observer of human nature, who does not gloss over the less glamorous details, even in those she loves and admires. Throughout the novel, the fragility of the relationships are laid bare.

Past and present often bleed together as Evie finds Sasha drawn to her in the absence of her lover. She is reluctant to acknowledge what she sees as awkward motherly feelings towards Sasha, just as she continues to agonise over Suzanne’s true feelings towards her. Much of Evie’s memories of Suzanne’s personality are inferred.

Evie often reflects on the lengths girls will go to indulge their nostalgia, reflecting on old makeup packaging fetching inordinate sums online. Cline’s novel is a similarly immersive experience, both for the reader, and a narrator looking to reclaim some of her most vivid memories.

Featured Image Source – Reader’s Digest