"We all want to be seen."
The words of the narrator, Evie Boyd, sum up the underlying theme of this excellent debut novel. Fourteen-year-old Evie feels a vague sense of unease with her upscale, late sixties suburbia life, as well as the role she is expected to play as a young woman. She feels the need to belong, to have others notice her and acknowledge her existence. Early on, she thinks, "All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves."
Someone finally does notice her: the titular girls, especially one named Suzanne. Evie is attracted to her in both an erotic and envious way. Suzanne seems defiant to the niceties of society and appears to be a free spirit. Evie falls in with the girls who eventually take her to the ranch, where several of them are living under the guidance of the supposedly brilliant and charismatic Russell. As Evie is drawn into the circle, she spends more and more time at the ranch, partying and getting deeper into their lifestyle.
Of course, the ranch, the girls, and Russell are thinly veiled stand-ins for Charlie and the Manson family. If I had to guess which Manson family member is the basis for Suzanne, I'd guess that it was Susan Atkins, AKA Sadie. Although we spend most of the book in 1969 as Evie relates the story of that strange summer that ended so violently, we also get the adult Evie looking back at her experience there. She ponders why she was so easily sucked into the group and wonders what she might have been capable of. She still lives in some fear and horror at the events of her past but also misses that initial sense of belonging...and of being noticed. The young Evie was beginning to realize the power of femaleness and the control that can be gained from it, a lesson she learned from the girls at the ranch.
For a non-horror book, it left me with a deep sense of dread, sadness, and understanding. Although Cline's prose can get a little much at times, it actually worked quite well. So many of Evie's distant memories are triggered by scents or sounds or a particular kind of light. It made me get inside her head and understand her feelings on a deeper level. It made me remember my own sense of wanting to belong at that age and wanting to be noticed.
This is an excellent book—and a debut novel!—my favorite of the year so far. Highly recommended.
The Girls by Emma Cline