I read this in one sitting, literally couldn’t put it down. This story of Evie, a teenager who joins a Manson-like cult in the summer of ’69, really drew me in with its incredible evocation of girlhood and adolescence in all its rawness. Interestingly, this story is less about the allure of Russell (the fictionalised Manson figure) and far more about ‘the girls’ that accrue about him. Evie is desperate to be noticed, to be loved, to be someone, and the girls – particularly their aloof quasi-leader, Suzanne – seem to Evie to offer her the sense of belonging and purpose she craves.
Let’s be clear: this author is going places. Cline’s writing style is relentlessly evocative, each page brimming with metaphors and similes and cleverly placed adjectives that are stunning in their ability to pinpoint a place or a feeling or a person. Sometimes it felt a little overwrought, but I feel like that is more to do with this book being Cline’s first novel than anything else. In places I felt there was too much description of things that seemed totally extraneous to the plot; other times the poetic lyricism of the first-person narration didn’t seem to ring true. Evie narrates the entire story of her fourteen year old self from middle-age…how much detail can one really remember of their teens, let alone detail described in mind-blowing prose? James Wood’s review in the New Yorker summed it up well – he found that the evocative prose distanced readers from some of the actual darkness in the story, and I agree. It was still a joy to read though, particularly Cline’s descriptions of Evie’s obsession with Suzanne, part-sexual, part-admiration – more than anything, you get the sense that Evie just wants to be Suzanne, and that part of the story was perfectly executed.
In fact, the focus on relationships between teenage women was the book’s ultimate strength. Russell never truly features – he is figured as alluring and charismatic, but also brutally manipulative and misogynistic – but he is still more a background figure, a plot device for bringing these girls together than anything else. For Evie really only joins the enclave to be near Suzanne, and it’s the weird power dynamic between those two that really drives the text’s tension. The story also emphasises and critiques the way girls are socially conditioned to need validation from men in order to feel whole, and even though all the girls in the book (including Evie) are often nasty and violent, they are complex, and as a reader you really feel for them and can understand their trajectories and motives even as you are appalled by them.
Did the Manson murders need to be the backdrop for this book? I don’t know. Cline’s fictionalised version of the events is extremely similar to what actually happened (from the interior of the converted school bus that the real Manson drove about, to ranch they lived on, to the connections to music industry, the way the murders were carried out…etc) and so it sometimes feels as though nothing new was brought to that aspect of the story. The focus on the girls’ relationships with each other (rather than with their male leader) is certainly innovative but I wonder if a totally fictionalised cult, and one not even necessarily from the 60s, would have been more effective, rather than rehashing such a familiar story? Especially because the feminist concerns of the story resonate so strongly with contemporary discussions about gender (ie. victim blaming, girls being girls on their own terms rather than feeling like their choices are dictated by society and men, etc). That said, all the description of 1960s California was awesome and compelling. On the whole, a good read, and I’ll definitely stay tuned to what Cline does next as I suspect she’ll only become better at aligning her style with her content as she goes on.