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The Girls is a beautiful new novel about cults and teen girl friendships

The Girls by Emma Cline
The Girls by Emma Cline
Random House

Emma Cline’s newly released, widely acclaimed debut novel The Girls is ostensibly based on the Manson family murders. But as I read it, I was reminded of nothing so much as My So-Called Life, the cult teen TV series that ran for all of 19 episodes in 1994.

At the heart of My So-Called Life is the alternately vicious and tender relationship between the show’s protagonist, middle-class and average Angela, and her new best friend, the wild and unpredictable Rayanne. Here’s how another character describes the two of them:

No, don't you remember, there would be like this one person who had like perfect hair, or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny, and you just wanted to eat them up? Just live in their bed. Just be them. Like everybody else was in black and white and that person was in color. Well, Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. Major color.

Theirs is a classic teen girl friendship dynamic, in which two girls become absorbed in each other to the exclusion of all else, creating their own insular world. It’s an intense type of relationship, one whose edges tremble with both resentment (Is that other girl so wonderful that I want to be her? Do I in fact hate her for that?) and eroticism (Is she so wonderful that I want to sleep with her?).

That mixture of resentment and eroticism is what finally leads Rayanne to sleep with Angela’s ex-boyfriend on My So-Called Life, and it’s what leads Evie, the protagonist of Girls, to come dangerously close to committing murder. As Cline makes clear, this sort of friendship can hew unnervingly close to the experience of being in a cult.

In The Girls, meeting Suzanne adds color to Evie’s black-and-white life

Evie is 14 years old as The Girls opens, and she’s stuck in one of those pockets of dead time that can afflict you at that age. School’s out for the summer. She’s too old for summer camp, too young for a job. Her parents are divorced and subsequently have no time for her. She’s grown estranged from her best friend. She’s in a dull, black-and-white period. So it makes perfect sense that when Evie first meets older, worldlier Suzanne, Suzanne is in major color:

As soon as I’d caught sight of the girls cutting their way through the park, my attention stayed pinned on them. The black-haired girl with her attendants, their laughter a rebuke to my aloneness. I was waiting for something without knowing what. And then it happened. Quick, but still I saw it: The girl with black hair pulled down the neckline of her dress for a brief second, exposing the red nipple of her bare breast. Right in the middle of a park swarming with people. … The sight of them; the gruesomely fetal quality of the chicken; the cherry of the girl’s single nipple. All of it was so garish, and maybe that’s why I kept thinking of them.

Evie is immediately infatuated with black-haired Suzanne, and yearning to be close to Suzanne is what leads her to the headquarters of The Girls’ Manson Family analogue.

Evie’s bond with her cult leader has less to do with him than with her desire to be close to Suzanne

In The Girls, Charles Manson is named Russell, but he’s still an aspiring musician who surrounds himself with lonely, impressionable people, promising that he understands their pain and their problems and that through him they can be healed. And like Manson, Russell surrounds himself mostly with young girls he can use for sex — for his own gratification, and to trade to other men as a bargaining chip.

Evie isn’t all that hung up on Russell. Like everyone else at the squalid, trash-ridden ranch where he camps out, she admires his overwhelming charisma, and when the others tell her he can do anything, she believes them. But the platitudes Russell offers her — that she has smart eyes, that she seems sad — are so banal that even sheltered, naive Evie isn’t really impressed by them.

So when she fools around with Russell, it’s not entirely because she’s under his spell. It’s a way to be closer to Suzanne. “I let myself feel like Suzanne,” she thinks as Russell approaches her, “the kind of girl a man would startle at, would want to touch.” Afterward, she feels a kind of conspiratorial glee, the giddiness of being in on a secret, of sharing anything with Suzanne. The next morning, when Suzanne says, “We need gas,” the infatuated Evie echoes in her mind, “We … we need gas.”

Before long, Evie is volunteering to steal gas money for Suzanne. She would do anything for Suzanne. She wants to be Suzanne, so beautiful and worldly and unselfconscious, and her desire occasionally blurs itself into a kind of romantic longing. When Evie finally loses her virginity to one of Russell’s seedy musician friends, Suzanne is in the bed with them.

The Girls’ cult plot heightens the stakes of a familiar teen girl friendship dynamic

The first line of My So-Called Life sees Rayanne whispering, “Go, now! Go!” to Angela, urging her to ask strangers for change, but Angela is cracking up too hard to do it. It’s a harmless adolescent prank, barely even a prank, and miles less dangerous and transgressive than the things Suzanne asks Evie to do — but the patterns of the two relationships are the same.

The worldlier girl urges her more innocent friend to do something illicit, and then the worldlier girl can bask in her friend’s admiration and vicariously reexperience the sense of childishness; meanwhile, the more innocent girl embraces the chance to feel wise and experienced, like her worldlier friend. It’s a potent and attractive relationship.

What The Girls does with this familiar friendship story is up the stakes. In a normal American high school, the emotional wreckage of Rayanne and Angela’s friendship is necessarily limited. When Angela learns that Rayanne has betrayed her, it feels like life and death, even though it’s not. But Evie and Suzanne aren’t in high school. They’re in a cult. It really is a matter of life and death.

When Russell finally sends Suzanne and a carful of his other followers off to kill, Evie tags along without really knowing what’s happening. She just wants to be close to Suzanne. And that is, ultimately, what saves Evie from the crime. “Suzanne must have seen the needy swarm of love [in my face],” she thinks. “Must have taken the measure, like a stone dropped in a well.” And in her own ultimate act of love, Suzanne kicks Evie out of the car and leaves her alone on the side of the highway.

Looking back on the cult murders as an adult, Evie can’t be sure she wouldn’t have gone along with them if Suzanne hadn’t sent her away. She could have done what Suzanne did, she thinks, very easily: “The hatred she must have felt … hatred like that was not unfamiliar to me.” And so adult Evie comes to the conclusion that in sending her away, Suzanne was performing one last act of identification. “She set me loose into the world like an avatar for the girl she would not be.”

This slippery kind of teen girl love — by turns solipsistic and selfless, quasi-romantic, and utterly absorbing — is more dangerous than the magnetism of a Russell or a Charles Manson, but it is also the only emotional bond that offers Evie and Suzanne the possibility of redemption. It is The Girls' beating heart.

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