Emma Cline’s The Girls tells the story of Evie Boyd, an ex-member of a cult in 1970’s Petaluma, California. The novel begins properly with Evie’s present- a somewhat run-of-the-mill, paycheck to paycheck life, in which she house-sits in various places and does little else. However, we have already been introduced to her colorful past in the two pages that make up the introduction of the novel- with the eponymous girls mentioned within the opening line. We learn very quickly that the Evie was involved in a cult that was involved in murderous activity from her interactions in this section- and this sets the reader up for the rest of the novel, to find out how the seemingly normal Evie was ever involved in this, and how the events unfolded. Because of this, there are no real surprises in the novel- everything we read inevitably leads up to what we have already been told will happen.
The protagonist, Evie, is introduced in the 1960’s as a 14 year-old who is lost in the sense that all 14 year-old girls are- struggling with divorced parents, confusion about sex, and wondering just who she really is. If the novel is truly about anything- it is this. All the details given about Evie’s life, repeated throughout the story, the house-sitting, the movie-star grandmother, the hippyish mother, all feel as if they should be clues to lead to something else, but they never does. Much like the novel, which feels to me to end rather oddly- you are left wondering what the purpose of all these details was- after all, why would Cline include it, if it wasn’t somehow part of some greater whole?
Part of the point of the novel seems to be that just about anyone could have got caught up in that cult culture at the time- showing the vulnerability of girls. We see that Evie is not a bad person, through the details that Cline gives about her. They make it impossible to think of her as anything but an innocent kid who got swept away in something much bigger than herself- and I think this is something Evie herself struggles with- wondering if she could have been like them, wondering what really separated her from them.
Another is the preoccupation (inferred from the title) with girls. We see many different types of girls within the novel- Evie’s mother, with her desperation to ‘find herself’, Tamar with her obsession with her life being ‘just-so’, Sasha and her strange relationship with Julian, and the girls at the ranch. Sasha’s character appears to be the primary reason for the ‘present’ parts of the novel for existing- they focus entirely on Evie seeing Sasha and wanting to help her, to stop her from settling for her relationship with Julian, and it is clear Evie sees something of herself within Sasha. The focus is on girls- and their dysfunctional relationships with men- which may well be the reason that Evie and the other girls end up living in the commune.
Overall I would give this book a 4/5 rating, it’s enjoyable and a fairly easy read (if you can get used to the unusual prose style) and perfect for a summer read.