“I waited to be told what was good about me […] All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really jut a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”
There’s something about the approach to turning 30 that invites an element of reflection. Now that the countdown is in weeks rather than months, I’m finding myself increasingly preoccupied with an endless recounting of the ‘coulds’, ‘shoulds’, and ‘woulds’ of the past three decades. The list is long. I’ve always had a strange relationship with the idea of regret. I spent the last part of my teenage years and the beginning of my twenties absolutely determined to live without regret of any kind. The exhaustion that comes with this kind of life philosophy was bolstered by conventional wisdom, telling us all that regret and failure – failure to seek out opportunities, failure to have courage, failure to embrace change – go hand in hand. Some years on, however, I’m realising that regret is a necessary part of life. While it does perhaps point to some failure on our part, it is also a intrinsic part of living life surrounded by people, places, and opportunities whilst limited in time and space – as we all are.
Perhaps it is this reflection that prodded me in the direction of Emma Cline’s The Girls and its perspective on choices, value, and memory. Part coming-of-age narrative, part social interrogation, The Girls is a brutal account of adolescence in the face of obsession and manipulation.
“They didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board. My childhood visits to the family doctor were stressful events for that reason. He’d ask me gentle questions: How was I feeling? How would I describe the pain? Was it more sharp or more spread out? I’d just look at him with desperation. I needed to be told, that was the whole point of going to the doctor. To take a test, be put through a machine that would comb my insides with radiated precision and tell me what the truth was.”
The narrative of The Girls is told from the perspective of its main character, Evie Boyd, in reflection from adulthood. The bulk of the story is, however, set in 1969 when Evie was just 14. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Evie is subject to the pressures and misconceptions that plague adolescent girls – a search for acceptance and validation, but always through the value assigned by others. Yet Evie’s experiences are given even starker account through her interactions with a Californian cult. Anyone who has even rudimentary familiarity with the Manson Family will understand that this novel offers a retelling of their history, albeit with details (including names and the specifics of the Family’s crimes) changed. The reader follows Evie as she finds herself increasingly in thrall to the group and its female members, and as the plot heads to its inevitably violent climax…
The Girls is a truly remarkable novel. However, to anticipate a true crime account or a psychological study of the cult’s leader is to misunderstand the purpose of the book. This is a coming-of-age tale that dissects the universality of the instincts and emotions that drive our choices as adolescents. Pointing most particularly to Cline’s incredible insight into the teenage experience is her ability to evoke a sense of timelessness in the narrative. Despite the historically specific and socially extreme setting, the novel evokes a sense of true familiarity in the reader. Anyone who has had the experience of living as a teenage girl will recognise much of what is described in The Girls – the struggle for acceptance, the desire for meaning that would somehow make life more understandable.
“I thought that loving someone acted as a kind of protective measure, like they’d understand the scale and intensity of your feelings and act accordingly. That seemed fair to me, as if fairness were a measure that the universe cared anything about.”
I came to this novel expecting more insight into the nature of cult dynamics. What I found was something better. For all the fixation on men and their position of power, male figures – even those as dominant as the cult leader, Russell – play a minimal role in the plot’s focus. While they serve as a catalyst for events, it is the relationship between the girls that acts as the book’s main preoccupation. The novel turns on the idea that “Girls are the only ones who can give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.” It is with Suzanne, the cult’s primary female figurehead and a girl of 19, that Evie becomes increasingly enamoured. And it is Evie’s relationships with the girls that continues to draw her back to the cult. For all the undeniable charisma of the leader, it is the females and their dynamics that make this novel turn.
Beyond its plot, The Girls is a truly well-written piece of work. The first-person narrative is engaging and highly believable. I often struggle with first-person teenage perspectives written by adults, largely because they have a tendency to fall into the realm of caricature. Perhaps it is the fact that this novel is told in retrospective – presumably decades later, at the same time as the present-day narrative that intersperses the novel – that allows Cline to avoid this. It also permits Evie to reflect, with some level of objectivity, on the thoughts and motivations that lay behind her choices at the time. Cline’s writing is so compelling, enough so that I finished The Girls over the course of one day (albeit with not much else going on!).
“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little of them will ever get it. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris’. Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”
The Girls is an enthralling and challenging insight into the nature of female adolescence. The brutal backdrop of violence and manipulation only throws further light on the trap of external validation that we experience as a normal part of growing up. Whether this serves as a warning or simply a reflection of reality depends largely on your perspective. Either way, this novel surely serves as a reminder of the grey line that exists between choice and regret.