Set primarily in North Carolina in the summer of 1969, The Girls follows the story of the lonely, upper-middle-class 14 year old Evie Boyd. When she notices a group of girls across the park, with long uncombed hair and dirty dresses worn high up their thighs, Evie is caught by their carelessness, their apparent freedom, and is desperate to be noticed by them. Slowly she becomes enthralled by the girls and the cult they are part of, with the charismatic Russell at its centre, and starts spending more and more time at the eerie, rundown ranch. Evie is soon caught up in an unthinkable violence, and is past the point of no return. This is a unique, fast-paced, and undeniably gripping read.
Evie is young, unhappy and extremely easily influenced; she is a familiar teenage protagonist who is not quite sure of herself, and thus her becoming enthralled by the older Suzanne, with her free-spirit and aura of abandon and sex is convincing. The new style of life she finds in the cult, being so unlike anything she has ever experienced before, is understandably thrilling for Evie, and it is scarily believable the way she is swept into the dangers of it, refusing to see its problems. The author is very good at exploring the emotional gaps in people, and how people seek to fill that lack in any way possible. We not only meet Evie when she is 14, but when she is an older woman too, looking back on that summer. I did not find this second story line nearly as interesting however, and while I could see how it could potentially add something to the novel, I found it unsatisfying.
The cult in the novel is modelled on the infamous criminal Charles Manson, who directed female members of his ‘Family’ to brutally murder actor Sharon Tate and her friends and family. Reading about the cult was captivating and highly disturbing: the presentation of the reclusive world, with its power dynamics and sexual abuse disguised under talk of a new utopian society of free-love, was terrifying. I particularly enjoyed reading about the effects the cult had on un-confident young women, especially surrounding the leader, the charismatic egomaniac Russell, whom everyone loved.
The strongest part of this novel, for me, was the exploration of emotional vulnerability, and the destructive direction that can lead people in. Aspects of the cult were fascinating to me, although I am not sure how accurate the novel was in mirroring the Family’s life, and there were certainly moments where I had to suspend my disbelief. I also did not particularly enjoy the writing, finding it to be occasionally stylish and flashy – the sense of summer in the 1960s was vivid – but not offering much else. I did not feel it opened up to further thought or analysis, presenting a good, descriptive story, but going no further.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel. The character of the drifting teenager Evie and what she gets caught up in through a desire for change and acceptance was interesting and often insightful, and themes of obsession/love and freedom/the illusion of freedom were interesting. Nevertheless, I found I was mainly reading this novel for its addicting and intense nature, and I don’t think it will necessarily stick with me.