A real summer book, the heat of the tale radiating throughout, The Girls by Emma Cline tells the story of Evie Boyd in the summer of 1969. Desperate to be noticed, with lonely days stretching out under the California sun, she sees the girls: thoughtlessly beautiful, with a cruel rebellious presence; Evie finds a new tribe. And in the centre is Russell and the range, deep in the hills down a long dirt track: intense with music and drugs and teen runaways. Underneath this setting is something darker and as current-day Evie tells her story, we discover there is more to this.
It is revealed slowly, knowingly, this cult: their personalities, their pulls, and how Evie takes herself into it all. It is not drugs and music and love that keeps her there though, but belonging. The magnetic personalities of Russell and Suzanne capture Evie’s imagination and desperation: her loneliness melts away so she imprints herself on them, their parties, their range, their escapades.
From the outset, how Evie first glimpses her new tribe sets the sensuous, poetic tone, full of the languid heat of summer, combined with the insecurity of adolescence: Evie sees the girls in the terms of what she is not.
“The sun spiked through the trees, like always – the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets – but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.”
There is a sensory sharpness in the things that matter in this scene. What Cline decides to focus on here is what distills the moment, what captures its importance and essence. This feeling pulses throughout the novel: how the heat of summer slows your movements and your mind; how some moments immediately crystallise into importance, waking you up; the adolescent fog of not belonging, committing you to people and therefore all their choices.
Never before have a read a book that so subtly and accurately captures the purity, faux-knowing, and insecurity of teenage girlhood. Reflecting later, Evie can see her the desperation in her younger self but there is no criticism: it is as if the mistakes were necessary to go through, the poor judgements inevitable.
“I wanted Russell to be kind, so he was. I wanted to be near Suzanne, so I believed the things that allowed me to stay there. I told myself there were things I didn’t understand. I recycled the words I’d heard Russell speak before, fashioned them into an explanation.”
It adds an uncomfortable reality to how the story is told. This is not a romanticisation of the Summer of ’69 and any nostalgia is unspoken. But it is still heady with feeling, sucking you into the beauty and pain of those captured moments; good and the bald; the freedom of youth as well as the perils.
I really loved The Girls: I tore through it, I inhaled it, I felt it all. It was scary and fantastic and raw and poetic and sensual and tense. It is a well told fictionalisation of a slice of modern history, has feelings of mystery, and is full of how it felt; and will make you feel.