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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Girls: A Novel

Arguably one of the hottest books on tap for the summer, Emma Cline's debut novel The Girls, is an astounding piece of fiction that will sound eerily familiar if you have any background on the turbulent 1960's. [Insert spine shiver here.]

My love of murder and mayhem has a special caveat I should add -- I love high-profile true crime stories. Needless to say, I have done my fair share of amateur research on Charles Manson, and that is one fascinating story. If you ever get an abundance of time, you should read Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, as it will change your life for the...better? If you can say that about a true crime book. Manson is a crazy, compelling character, and the more you read about him, the more you start to wonder if you are going crazy. It's super cool and incredibly informative. I start out telling you about another book because this fictional novel has a different, if equally, compelling hook.

It's 1969, and a summer that would live in the history books as a violent one. For 14 year old Evie, though, life is beyond miserable. Her father has left her mom for his much younger co-worker, and her mom has started dating Frank, who is currently already married yet still practically living with them. Her best friend has abandoned her as teenage girls are wont to do, and when Evie one day sees Suzanne -- not traditionally beautiful, but certainly magnetic -- she is drawn into what can only be described as a cult, led by the charismatic and controlling Russell. Everyone does what Russell says, and if you don't...there will be hell to pay. Now and forevermore. But when you are in -- well, you can live in infamy if you follow his direction.

My biggest draw to this book was the raves about the prose, and the early readers were right about that. Cline is a consistent, strong writer and I loved reading her story. More than just her sentences and words, though, was the character of Evie and the focus on the girl who got away. We know early on that Evie is not mentioned in conjunction with the vicious murders this leader and his followers are known for, but we do know that Evie gets more and more entangled with the group and knows more than anyone has ever given her credit for, for better or for worse. It's a suspenseful interplay between the reader and the writer, and Cline kept me on the hook the whole book. She excelled not only in prose, but also in her character and storytelling. She took an incredibly famous, mind-boggling true story and in fiction made it empathetic and riveting.

I have heard people ask again and again how someone could murder for someone as nutty as Manson in real life or Russell in this fictional story, and while I understand it on an intellectual level, Cline really drives this point home for the reader and makes it clear that these leaders (mostly men, but let's not be sexist here) prey on the weak and the young, removing them from safe zones and making them dependent upon the one leader. As Evie looks back on that summer and the decisions that led her to stay at the ranch, she is thoughtful about the reasons she was driven to and attracted by this group while still not apologizing for her life. Her character was really amazing.  The moment where Evie is drawn in by Russell -- her first sexual experience -- was erotic and disturbing at the same time, and it set up a tone for the rest of the book that constantly struck a power balance between what Evie wanted and what she felt compelled to do. 

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