“The Girls” by Emma Cline

The year 1969 was an especially difficult time to be a young female teen who is just becoming aware of her sexuality.  I know because in that year I was one myself.  I believe that it was extra hard in the late sixties for a girl to understand herself as a sexual being since the hippie movement was just making an appearance, weaving its way into our social fabric.  To use music as a metaphor (since the villain in this work of fiction was striving to become a musician), females were encouraged to follow the rules of Stephen Stills’ song to “Love the One You’re With.”  Paradoxically, the hippie spirit backfires on her and suddenly the Young Rascals are labeling  the same young woman “Mustang Sally”, informing her that she is “gonna be wipin [her] weepin eyes.”  You get my point: Even during the time of flower power and free love there was still a double standard for females.

The protagonist in this novel is a 14 year old girl in the year 1969. The story is told through her middle aged adult eyes looking back in time.   Cline writes so well on the late sixties that I could hear the music of the day playing on my transistor radio along with feeling my own teenage angst.  The author makes the point that although the 1960’s seemed to have a casual environment, it really was a time of extremely strict social rules.  Being cool was of such importance that the worst thing that could happen to you was to be labeled as uncool, which is how our heroine finds herself in a horrendous situation.  Our “girl” is bored with her typical suburban teenage life style and it was a time in America when middle class life was considered the dullest of them all (listen to the lyrics of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees).   So when the young heroine meets these very groovy slightly older hippie chicks, she is thrilled to be welcomed into their world.  Unfortunately, the reader very soon realizes that these female flower children were anything but peaceful. Their lives revolved around their commune’s leader who is modeled after Charles Manson.  And that their young lives will soon involve gruesome murders.

The reader knows from the beginning that the protagonist was not part of the murders (more through a stroke of luck than by a moral decision). Still, she went through such sexual trauma during the days of the sexual revolution that she never recovered. I was horrified when I read that this actually sweet kid finds herself losing her virginity with the Manson like character and another older man who was an established musician in an orgy-like atmosphere.  Then, only a few weeks later, she goes off to a boarding school as a freshman in high school.  And in high school she finds it impossible to fit in or even go on an average date for fear of rape and/or death.  Her post traumatic stress stayed with her throughout adulthood, causing her to live a very lonely life.

This novel is marketed as another “Gone Girl” or “Girl on the Train” but the only similarity I found is in the word “girl.” The first two books are psychological thrillers.  I would call this a coming of age thriller (if there is such a genre.). Even if you read “Helter Skelter”, written by the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson, this book has something more to offer because in this book the re-imagining of the Charles Manson murders was really just the side plot.  The scariest part of the tale was not the descriptions of the slaughter.  It was reading how easily the girl next door can become involved with a crazy cult.  It simply involves teenage desperation for acceptance, boosted with a lot of acid, and a mentally ill adult man for her to worship like a rock star.  Now that can chill any adult’s psyche.  

Publisher: Random House

Release Date: June 14, 2016

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