How’d a nice girl like you wind up in the Manson Family? | Book review: The Girls – Emma Cline

Girl lying in the grass

You wait forever for a book about the girls of the Manson Family to arrive and then two come along at once. This month sees the publication of both Emma Cline’s The Girls and Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl. And, if we’re counting the TV series Aquarius, as well as Manson’s Lost Girls, the recent Lifetime movie (yes, really), Susan Atkins et al have, like, omg never been hotter.

The Girls by Emma ClineLet’s save the “ethics of true crime” discussion for another time (hey, you listened to Serial, too, right?). There’s obviously something that still resonates about this legend of a magnetic man; one who’s capable of building a cadre of (mostly female) misfits willing to murder for him. The fact that attention has mostly shifted from Manson to his “girls” speaks to both the post-Gone-Girl wave of female-driven crime novels and also to society’s persistent astonishment whenever a woman does anything except what she’s supposed to. When we see her mugshot, we all still wonder, “How’d a nice girl like you end up there?”

Summer of ‘69

In The Girls, the year is 1969 and that nice girl is Evie, a 14-year-old from an affluent home that’s breaking down around her (dad’s run off with his secretary; mom’s dating losers and drinking too much). Little wonder that, when she sees around town a group of free spirits led by a woman named Suzanne, she drifts away from home and into their commune. The surface differences between this group and the Manson Family are minor, but, for Evie, it’s Suzanne who’s the “magnetic” one. The Manson figure of Russell exists largely in the background.

Would you be disappointed to find out that The Girls isn’t really about Russell/Manson (or Suzanne/Susan Atkins) at all?

Well, sorry, but it’s not.

Friendship, lust, and coming of age

Manson is clearly the 10-second-sell for this book, but in actual fact it’s more of a hazy tale of friendship, lust, and coming of age.

I couldn’t help but think of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, a roman à clef about George and Laura Bush, where the most compelling parts have nothing at all to do with true events. The real people are the sell, but Sittenfeld does her best writing when she’s unconstrained by the roman à clef structure.

The same could be said for Emma Cline. I’d argue that The Girls’ best moments have little to do with cult life.

I loved the queasy sequence where Evie spends time with the boy next door, a pre-pubescent boy who can barely conceal his erection when faced with her bikini-clad body. Almost without thinking about it, Evie manipulates him into giving her money (for drugs she knows she’ll never deliver). She exhibits the shark-like focus of someone who has power for the first time in her life.

Well observed, also, is Evie’s relationship with her new stepmother, Tamar, a woman barely older than she is. Their girlish camaraderie abruptly cools when Evie realises that this marriage is doomed. Tamar will leave her dad, and soon.

Fact and fiction

However, these sequences are snapshots. Although compelling, they have little bearing on the overall story. In fact, The Girls is rather a sluggish affair.

It’s a novel that revolves around a cult – and the cult ought to give the novel its shape, its purpose. The trouble is, Cline doesn’t really commit to exploring the cult’s horrors. She smooths out many of the real-life rough edges of the Manson clan, making her version of the Tate murders into a simple case of revenge. For my money, this is a mistake. What’s luridly fascinating about the Tate-LaBianca murders is how utterly bonkers they were, soaked in Beatles obsession and imagined apocalyptic racial warfare.

Fascinating, too, is the girls’ slavish devotion to Manson, which, in The Girls, is dismissed as hyperbole. It’s another narrative decision that lessens the drama of the novel, rather than adds to it.

I remember watching the 1973 Manson documentary, with its extensive footage of glassy-eyed cult members, and finding it so viscerally disturbing that I deleted the movie the moment I hit the end credits. ‘Never, ever, ever going to watch that again,’ I said to myself. Of course, a few years have passed now, and I think I’d like to watch it again… Because, the thing is, this is one of those curious instances where the truth is far, far stranger than fiction. None of the recent wave of Manson-and-his-girls stories have matched that documentary or the utterly absorbing true crime book, Helter Skelter.

All told, The Girls feels like something and nothing. It’s filled with descriptions that are sometimes beautiful but more often exhausting. There’s a dual narrative with a present-day subplot that ultimately drifts away like smoke. When I reached the novel’s end, I was sad to see it go – but not because it was an un-putdown-able read, but because it felt like a prologue to what could have been a fascinating novel.

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