Cline sets the novel north of San Francisco in the small town of Petaluma, near her own hometown of Sonoma. The cult she depicts is smaller than Manson’s: it’s just a handful of core women, their scrappy children, one perverse Oklahoman boy, and a stream of passers-by. There isn’t a string of murders, but one murderous night, which takes place in a house overlooking the San Francisco Bay — the target, a famous musician who the clan feels has betrayed them.
Cline doesn’t pledge allegiance to Manson’s true story; it’s the atmosphere of the cult that she aims to reproduce and the psychology of the women bound up in its workings. Likewise, the book’s brutal murders don’t render The Girls a thriller; instead, it’s the coming-of-age story of a sharp, introverted 14-year-old named Evie Boyd, who falls in with the girls of the cult just months before the murders. The sensational nature of the murders is tempered by the novel’s retrospective nature, told by an adult Evie while she house-sits for a friend and reflects on the summer she spent with the cult. Unlike the other girls of Russell Madrick’s clan, Evie isn’t in love with him, but instead falls for 19-year-old Suzanne, the leader among the girls, with her feral beauty and haughty self-possession.
Evie’s first sighting of Suzanne and her acolytes occurs in a family-filled park, which only underlines their aberrance and their allure: “I saw right away that the black-haired one was the prettiest. I had expected this, even before I’d been able to make out their faces,” notes Evie. “There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her […] They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time.” The girls are made powerful by this uneasy threshold: their rejection of societal norms and the certainty of their familial bond. They seem to offer the promise of belonging that is nonexistent in Evie’s own family — her newly divorced parents mostly ignore her as they enact their own separate dramas.
The girls provide an escape from the boredom of being a well-behaved woman, which cannot compete with the ’60s trinity of peace, love, and freedom. Evie notices how even the girls’ clothes “[announce] a hostility to the larger world.” Their influence sharpens Evie’s perspective on the world of her parents and her childhood, which Evie comes to call the “old world.” In the old world, Evie realizes, people are “cowed by the bitter medicine of their lives. Where the money [keeps] everyone slaves, where they [button] their shirts to the neck.” After Evie falls in with the girls, pop songs on the radio remind Evie only of “the laughably foreign soundtrack to other people’s lives.” This knowledge drives Evie to spend most nights at “the ranch” where the cult holes up. The ranch is part commune, part farm, complete with llamas and free-range toddlers.
Russell Madrick is conspicuously absent, and this vacancy looms large among the girls. Much of what they do is in service of a master whose offstage authority is both threat and delight. This is especially poignant before Evie meets Russell, when he exists only in the adoring descriptions the girls ascribe to him. Evie marvels at how “their certainty was unwavering, invoking Russell’s power and magic as though it were as widely acknowledged as the moon’s tidal pull or the earth’s orbit.” Without Russell, we see clearly the nature of the girls’ devotion, their camaraderie, and their conflicts.
Evie comes from an upper middle-class family; her father fled to Palo Alto with his twentysomething former secretary, and her mother is so embroiled in a brand of ’60s-style New Ageism that she doesn’t notice her daughter’s deteriorating appearance. Evie adopts the girls’ tattered style — she loses weight as food on the ranch becomes scarce, as drugs become the priority. Despite her parents’ failures, they aren’t stock characters of bourgeois narcissism. Cline draws them artfully, humanizing their apparent worries over aging and finding fulfillment. While cleaning up after a party, Evie watches her mother brush “olive pits, washed in other people’s saliva into her open palm.” Cline’s incisive observations, the way in which olive pits can become a stand-in for the insults of domesticity, are what makes this book a pleasure to read.
Evie never manages to fully become one of the girls. Younger than the others, she’s still tethered to her old life, in which she lives with her mother in a manicured home in the wealthy part of town. This connection to even a thin layer of domestic comfort allows her to see what is going on among the girls, particularly how the girls’ agency erodes as they give themselves completely over to Russell: “Suzanne and the other girls had stopped being able to make certain judgments,” Evie observes, “the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless.” When Evie finally meets Russell, she both sees through his seductions and is eager to please him. A requisite of ranch life includes Russell’s advances, a routine Evie comes to view as a duty that cements her bond to the other girls, as if being with Russell is truly a way to be with Suzanne. She sees, too, the weaknesses in her parents’ flawed relationships. In both cases, she recognizes “the ways desire could humiliate you.”
One song from Manson’s 1967 recording session, entitled “Look at Your Game, Girl,” particularly resonates with Cline’s dissection of cult dynamics. The velvety crooner voice is reminiscent of a bluesy Roy Orbison, but surprisingly, the voice belongs to Manson. The melody is dreamy, the verses lilting and somewhat saccharine, as the singer implores a girl to quit the games she plays: “You can tell those lies baby / But you’re only foolin’ you […] Look at your game, girl.”
Were it an Orbison tune, the takeaway might be for girls to quit playing with men’s hearts. But beneath the pop veneer, Manson’s message is more pointed. He intends to wake girls from the “sad games” they submit to in an artificial world: “What a mad delusion / Livin’ in that confusion.” Much like Manson’s ministering, it uses repetition to hypnotic effect, making “normal” life seem like a sleepwalk and the option of cutting all ties seem like the only way out.
The Manson family saga is a testament to just how successful such rhetoric is for inspiring donations from the wealthy, adopting teenage runaways, and attracting young women. Manson’s honeyed voice makes the song all the more chilling, providing a glimpse of how the seduction might have taken place. The “Manson girls” were nothing short of devout, as footage of the girls from that era makes plain. The persistence of the term “Manson girls” is a curious one, since the girls were young women — many of them even mothers. But like their diminutive moniker, the mythology surrounding the Manson girls doesn’t age — they are perennially of interest. Pretty, obstinate, and cunning, the women’s devotion to Manson and his murky ideology is enthralling, though scarcely written about.
That is, until Cline’s novel. “I think we all are sick of the charismatic sociopath by now,” said Cline in an interview with Publishers Weekly. “I wanted to know more about [the girls’] psychology, about what would lead these young women from ‘normal’ families, who had been homecoming queens and straight-A students, into this horrifying other realm.”
Cline has a knack for dissecting sexual politics, both within the cult and in the normal, suburban world of Petaluma. In the book’s goriest passages, she spares no detail, though you wish she would. She lingers in the explicit, exhibiting an aptitude for conjuring our basest human instincts, like Suzanne’s frenzied brutality and mercilessness as she kills a small boy. An unfortunate rock left unturned is the ideology of the cult, other than vague anti-establishment sentiments that trickle down into the girls’ scorn for the comfortable classes. The girls themselves seem to cohere into one shabbily dressed, stringy-haired mass, except for Suzanne, who is rendered vividly under Evie’s admiring gaze, though she shares the shabby dress and stringy hair. Cline’s dreamy and meditative writing style is what makes the trip to the portentous ’60s underground so alluring — her voice is one that will undoubtedly garner a following of its own.
Though the women in this novel are violent, even unhinged, Cline points out the subtler cruelties of girlhood, showing us how the everyday insults accrue to become their own kind of violence. These women, like so many others, are stripped of their autonomy through mundane injustices. While the adult Evie struggles to explain the hatred that motivates the murders, she understands keenly why “hatred was easy.” She can easily catalog the events which fuel it: “a stranger at a fair who palmed my crotch through my shorts. A man on the sidewalk who lunged at me, then laughed when I flinched […] None of this was rare. Things like this happened hundreds of times. Maybe more.” Perhaps, Evie reflects, Suzanne recognized “The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl’s face […] There was so much to destroy.”
The destruction in the book lingers for decades. Like the Manson family, the ranch’s clan dissipates after the murders, though the cult’s stories eternally captivate. Cline’s novel unearths what the legacy means for survivors. Evie haunts her own story — little seems to have happened to her in the decades that followed the murders, so in a sense, she becomes another victim of that night. She was always an outsider among the girls, and yet, she was never again part of a family. There’s clearly love, and a sense of loss, in Evie’s recounting of that summer, but there’s also terror at how close Evie came to being lost too.