Picture San Francisco circa 1969: The epicenter of earthquakes and youthquakes, a cosmic magnet for seekers, freaks, and flower children still hanging on to the counterculture dream. Fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd lives just outside all that, in more ways than one—a lonely latchkey kid marking time in drowsy, sunbaked Sonoma and waiting for the day her real life will finally begin.
When a group of older girls appears one day in a local park, feral and careless and glittering with secrets, Evie sees an escape hatch from her endless summer of oleo sandwiches and teen magazines. Their ringleader, Suzanne, captivates her, and the world they eventually invite her into—centered on a dusty ramshackle ranch outside of town and commandeered by a charismatic figure named Russell—feels like the answer to everything. Among these new friends, she is suddenly included and even desired—not by the pimply boys she used to pine for in her bedroom but by real grown men. Russell is the first to single Evie out, at least briefly, for romantic attention; a self-styled mystic in sideburns and Wranglers, he preaches woozy messages of love and freedom. But there’s something darker thrumming beneath the ranch’s daily routine of communal chores and campfire togetherness. And because of the way The Girls is structured, it’s clear from the first pages how all this will end: with death and mayhem, in a Manson-family-style massacre so brazenly brutal that it comes to define the end of not just a decade but a certain kind of national innocence.
Anyone who skimmed Helter Skelter in high school will recognize the psych profile of a sociopath and the many similarities to one of the 20th century’s most infamous crimes. But Emma Cline’s fierce, gripping debut is much less interested in the stock answers to what motivates a man like Russell or Charles Manson (ego, insanity) than the deeper impulses that tug an ordinary girl like Evie toward that kind of madness—and how she can come so close to breaching it that she still wonders, decades later, at the thinness of the line that held her back, how arbitrary it might be that her hands are clean. A
OPENING LINES “I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls. I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun.”