Novel Review: The Girls

Last year’s pop-thriller was Paula Hawkins’ intriguing mystery, The Girl on the Train; they just released the movie adaptation. This year, the bestseller sort-of-a-thriller presents a fictional version of the Manson killings. Since there’s no mystery about the killers’ identities, Emma Cline’s The Girls examines what might make an upper-middle-class teen join a madman’s cult.

Title: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline

First published June 14, 2016.

ISBN-10: 081299860X
ISBN-13: 978-0812998603

Available from,,


A dissatisfied teen, infatuated with a group of counterculture girls, gradually becomes a part of a cult destined to commit an incomprehensible killing.

High Point:

Cline avoids sensationalism, even more than necessary. The actual murders take up very little of the novel. She’s more interested in showing us Evie’s journey, and drawing parallels between the expectations for young women, especially in 1969, and the realities of life with the Family out on the Spahn Ranch.

The present-day setting doesn’t accomplish much, but it illustrates how past horrors become romanticized and fetishized.

Low Point:

Though a quick read, The Girls feels like a novella someone stretched into a novel. It’s most powerful scenes and points can be easy to miss, due to a sometimes strong, and sometimes overwrought writing style, and a surfeit of the protagonist’s teen reflections.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 The novel calls Charles Manson “Russell” and changes some key aspects of the killings (Russell’s psychotic motives are slightly more comprehensible than Manson’s, but that’s a bar most of us couldn’t limbo under). This remains yet another revisiting of the Manson Family. However, Cline has taken a different approach. Dissatisfied Evie isn’t drawn to Russell; she’s drawn to the Girls.

Imagery: 5/6 Cline should trim the haiku-like use of imagery: less is more, and while she can write very well, the story often gets lost in her style….

Story: 3/6: …And the novel doesn’t have much of a story. Fourteen-year-old Evie mopes, becomes a hangaround with a cult, and then recalls the events from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. We have a coming-of-age story into which a notorious mass-murder has been inserted—and the protagonist isn’t even present when it happens.

Characterization: 5/6 Evie unfolds in meticulous detail. The other characters feel less-developed, even as secondary characters. I remain uncertain about the full appeal of Suzanne, although Evie’s infatuation, on several levels, comes across clearly.

Emotional Response: 4/6

Editing: 4/6

Overall score: 4/6 Cline, still in her twenties, has a bestseller and the promise of a career as a writer.

In total, The Girls receives 27/42