“Isn’t that the girl with the 2 million dollar book deal?” On more than one occasion, this question instantly followed the reveal that I was currently reading Emma Cline’s first novel, The Girls. Obvious implication: is the book actually worth 1 million dollars (unless I’m mistaken, the 2 million is for a two-book deal). During the first 100 pages, I undoubtedly would’ve responded with an emphatic yes—towards the end, not so much.
The Girls, which is based on the Manson Murders, received glowing reviews from some of my favorite authors (Jennifer Egan, for one). Though I am not at all familiar with the actual Manson murders, historical knowledge notwithstanding, a story about a murderous cult has undeniable page-turner appeal.
The book’s opening scenes are dull but necessary: Cline lays out the unstable but somehow still bland family life of our protagonist, Evie. Her father has left her mother, the daughter of a now-deceased famous actress, for a younger woman in his employ. Evie lives alone with her mother in Northern California—forced to endure occasional, painful dinnertime visits from her mother’s boyfriend, Frank. She has one friend—Connie—with whom she does everything, not because she likes Connie’s company, but because she has a schoolgirl crush on his brother. One day, while riding her bike into town, Evie spots a group of girls and is instantly intrigued by their closeness. She continues to track their movements for a few days, until she finally works up the courage to introduce herself. She subsequently discovers that the girls: Suzanne, Donna, and Helen, all live on a commune with a man named Russell (intended as the novel’s Charles Manson). They claim that Russell, the object of their adulation, is a musical genius on the verge of stardom.
Desperate to escape the monotony of her every day life, the fourteen year-old Evie begs Suzanne, the girls’ clear ringleader, to bring her to the commune. Once there, she gets caught up in a world beyond her wildest dreams—and as cracks in Russell’s façade begin to reveal terrifying tendencies, she is already in too deep to escape unscathed.
Though I found the introductory section of the book painfully boring, I tore through it because I knew what was coming. Initial glimpses into cult life with Russell were fascinating, but, towards the end of the book, things got a bit repetitive, and [mild but obvious spoilers ahead] I found the murders overwrought and overwritten.
Does The Girls have a rightful position on all of the “best beach reads of 2016 lists” it currently graces? Absolutely. But it’s hard to consider the author of a book adapted only somewhat loosely from actual events a creative visionary deserving of the million she got.