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Literature / The Girls

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The Girls (2016) is the debut novel by Emma Cline.

Evie Boyd is a rather aimless middle-aged woman working as a live-in personal assistant, sometime around the turn of the 21st century. Her temp gig as a housesitter is interrupted when the owner's son and his needy teenaged girlfriend arrive. The presence of the girl forcefully reminds Evie of the most tumultuous time in her life: the two months in 1969 when 14-year-old Evie was a member of a cult led by a ragamuffin would-be musician named Russell.

The story turns out to be a fictionalized retelling of the Charles Manson murders. Alienated suburbanite Evie is strongly attracted to the rebellious free-love atmosphere of Russell's dirty little commune, and specifically to Suzanne, one of Russell's most devoted followers. Suzanne's bold sexuality and free-spiritedness are a powerful attraction to teenaged Evie, alienated from her divorced parents, looking desperately for meaning and acceptance. Evie's lust for Suzanne and her need for belonging take her down a dark path and threaten to pull her into monstrous evil.



  • Author Catchphrase:
    • The word "wet" is used 43 times in the novel. Wet hands, wet clothes from the rain, hair wet with sweat, sexually wet, "wet, overripe tomatoes", a man "gasping wetly" from climax...
    • Cline's rather unusual use of "queer" in its original meaning; see Have a Gay Old Time below.
  • Bluff the Imposter: Evie, as usual trying desperately to fit in, pretends that she has seen a risqué movie that Peter and Henry just saw. Henry asks her about the Christmas scene with the snow, then after she falls for it, he laughs and tells her that the whole movie was set in Fiji.
  • Cassandra Truth: Not long before the murders, Evie cajoles a nice young man named Tim into accompanying her to the ranch. A couple of hours in the presence of Russell's minions leads a horrified Tim to get the hell out of there, but not before he begs Evie to come with him, telling her that the others "are not nice people." Evie ignores him.
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  • Celebrity Paradox: Evie mentions reading Valley of the Dolls. Sharon Tate starred in the film version of that book, raising the question of whether she exists in this universe and whether she met a brutal death in the same manner as Linda did at Edgewater Road.
  • Commune: It's a pretty dark example of one but Russell's cult is in fact a commune. All clothes are in a community pot. Evie is startled to find her fancy blouse, now much the worse for wear, being worn by another cult member.
  • Cult: Russell has a band of mostly girls, chiefly teenagers or slightly older, who serve him and worship him and believe he has supernatural powers. Eventually they kill for him.
  • Doublespeak: When Suzanne is reluctant to take Evie back to the ranch with them, Donna comments that "Russell wouldn't like it if we weren't being hospitable". Evie completely misses the threat behind this, which she herself lampshades when recollecting the moment.
  • For Want of a Nail: Evie joins the others on the ride to what will soon be the Edgewater Road murders. Evie touches Suzanne's hand. This snaps Suzanne out of a reverie, and Suzanne immediately dumps Evie on the side of the road, a half-hour before they arrive at the murder scene. Thus Evie is spared spending the rest of her life in prison. Evie spends the next thirty-odd years why Suzanne ditched her by the side of the road, whether it was because she realized Evie couldn't kill, or if it was because she realized Evie could kill, and so she dumped Evie so Evie would have the life Suzanne wouldn't.
  • Framing Device: Middle-aged Evie's encounter with a teenaged girl and her rather predatory boyfriend sets her to remembering her experiences with Russell's cult in 1969.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Interestingly, a novel in 2016 has three separate examples of the word "queer" used in its original, now archaic meaning of "strange".
    Evie: I had a queer twinge of motherly feeling for her...
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?: Evie's friend Connie says stuff like "The best way to get over someone is under someone else," despite the fact that Evie knows full well that Connie is a virgin too.
  • Hippie Van: As befitting this especially dark take on hippies and The '60s, Russell's clan tools around in a van that has been painted all black, even the windows.
  • Infant Immortality: One of the murder victims at Edgewater Road is Mitch's five-year-old son. (In Real Life Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant.)
  • Kick the Dog: Julian comes off as The Sociopath, his unhealthy relationship with Sasha reminding Evie of how Russell exploited his girls. Sasha tells Evie that Julian was expelled from UC-Irvine after he poisoned a professor's dog.
  • Male Gaze: Evie holds most men in contempt, and indeed most of the male characters in the novel are monsters. She remembers how Mitch the rock guitarist looked her over.
    "Mitch studied me with a questioning, smug smile. Men did it so easily, that immediate parceling of value. And how they seemed to want you to collude on your own judgment.”
  • Parental Obliviousness: Evie is boggled by how her father fails to pick up on her emotional distress after news of the Edgewater Road murders breaks.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Part of the reason for Evie's alienation from her life and why she's an easy mark for Russell. Her parents are divorced. Her father has taken up with his mistress Tamar, while her mother dates a bunch of guys before settling on a gold prospector named Frank. Evie is angry with both of them. Later, both Frank and Tamar are gentle with Evie when she starts getting in trouble with her parents, leading her to wonder if she misjudged them.
  • Porn Stash: Adolescent Evie is intrigued when she finds her father's nudie magazines in a drawer in the bathroom.
  • Right Through the Wall: Evie is made uncomfortable when she hears Julian and Sasha having noisy sex in the next room. Later she realizes that Julian knew she could hear.
  • Roman à Clef: The Manson murders.
    • The reason for the murders is Russell's rage at Mitch for failing to get him a record deal, just as the reason for the Manson murders was Charlie's rage at Terry Melcher for failing to get him a record deal.note . One man and three women commit the murders, as in real life. One of the murder victims smiles at Suzanne just as Abigail Folger smiled at Susan Atkins. The Edgewater Road house is still stringed with Christmas lights in summer, as the Tate residence was.
    • Russell is a wanna-be folk musician, like Charlie Manson. Like Charlie, Russell is a good 15 years older than most of the girls that make up his little cult.
    • Russell's little cult tools around in a modified school bus painted all black, which Charlie Manson's Family also did.
    • Suzanne is most reminiscent of Susan Atkins but in general seems to be an amalgam of all three of the girls who went murdering for Manson in 1969.
    • Roos, who has a child and eventually testifies against the others, is Linda Kasabian. Guy, who is more of a sidekick to Russell than a follower, and who does the driving on the fateful night, is Tex Watson.
    • Mitch the musician is a combination of Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, friend to Manson, and record producer Terry Melcher, former resident of the house where Sharon Tate and her friends were butchered.
    • Evie says that she was mentioned in a book about Russell's cult by a poet, who got her name wrong. This is a reference to poet Ed Sanders, who wrote the first book about Manson's cult, The Family.
    • Evie is the granddaughter of a well-known actress. Angela Lansbury's daughter was a member of Charlie Manson's cult for a while.
    • The girls supplement the cult's food supply by raiding grocery store dumpsters, which the real life Manson girls also did.
    • Differences between the fictional story and reality include moving the setting of the crime from Los Angeles to Marin County and omitting a second night of murder as happened in Real Life at the LaBianca residence.
  • Saying Too Much: Helen is the one who ultimately blabs about just how involved in the murders the girls were.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Evie doesn't recognize Dan's handsome, arrogant, 20-year-old son Julian, having last seen him when he was a 13-year-old boy.
  • The Sociopath: Russell, who has a gift for manipulating and exploiting women, and eventually gets them to murder for him. A more ambiguous example is Julian, who is Not So Different from Russell, verbally abusing Sasha during sex, demeaning and manipulating her on a regular basis.
  • Three-Way Sex: Evie and Suzanne are sent to Mitch as a sexual bribe to help get Russell a record deal. Evie is deflowered by Mitch but doesn't enjoy the experience at all, loathing him, being far more attracted to Suzanne.
  • Title Drop: The first line of the novel, as Evie remembers her first time seeing Russell's followers.
    Evie: I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The book was published in 2016 but seems to be set sometime in the early years of the 21st century. Evie is described as middle-aged rather than old (she'd be 61 in 2016), and an off-hand reference to a San Francisco woman getting killed by pit bulls is an apparent allusion to the 2001 death of Diane Whipple.
  • Would Hit a Girl: When Helen's chattering irritates a stressed-out Russell, he slaps her across the face. Evie is shocked both by the slap and by most of the other girls's studied indifference to the slap.
  • Would Hurt a Child: One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, all the more jarring because Roos has a son around that age.

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