When this week began, I knew very little about Charles Manson and the “Manson Family.” I’d seen his picture. I’d heard references to Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten without really knowing who they were. I knew it wasn’t pretty, but I’d never gone in search of the details.
Then I picked up The Girls by Emma Cline. A popular book, often featured on end caps, with an appealing cover and a vaguely historical basis. An impulse purchase, if I must admit it, on a shopping trip to Target. It sat on my shelf for about six months before I cracked the cover, then I read the whole thing in two days.
It was a strange experience, reading The Girls, though that’s not necessarily because of the book itself. You see, my days of sitting alone and devouring a book are pretty much over. I read books in snippets, partial chapters–before bed, during nap times, when my kids are otherwise occupied. Mostly, if they’re awake, I don’t even try, but the other day I found myself vegging out while the girl was asleep and the boy played quietly with his trucks and I thought, I need some stimulation. So I grabbed a book. I spent the rest of that afternoon and much of the next transitioning between worlds–from the dusty ranch to the changing table to an explicit sex scene to stacking blocks. After my husband got home on day one, I got curious and Googled the heck out of Manson.
The Girls is fiction. It’s based on the Manson family, but not actually about them. Names are changed, but so are events–from what I read online, I gathered that the book creates a simpler reality, with more obvious motivations and a naive narrator whose version of events could never encompass the complexity of what happened in August 1969 because that narrator (Evie) is only fourteen, looking for a little rebellion, and her interest in the group is not based on an attraction to their leader but to one of the girls. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and are behaving, to her mind, bizarrely. She has a best friend but their relationship is tenuous and when it falls apart, Evie falls in quite easily with the group of girls she’s seen dumpster-diving around town.
Upon finishing this novel, I was almost jealous that I hadn’t written it. It’s a really solid book with interesting subject matter with a baked-in climax, and the way she structures it–there’s some scaffolding in which an aging Evie encounters a friend’s young son and his girlfriend and is reminded of her youth–gives the book constant tension, because even if you’ve never heard of Charles Manson, she tells you right up front that Evie was in a cult that committed some gruesome murders, though Evie herself was not involved. So the whole time, you’re looking for the motivations and the string of coincidences necessary for her to have been involved without ever being publicly linked. And even if you’re a little disappointed in the way things turn out (I’ll admit that I was, though the simplicity of Cline’s story rings true), you still get a jolt as if you’ve been nearly hit by a car, and you’ve read three hundred pages of real, raw, honest girlhood.
But back to my jealousy. I wished I’d written the thing until I realized: Emma Cline has a hard job ahead of her. This is her first novel, and it was a hit. While she did a huge amount of work fleshing it out, her story’s skeleton was already there, giving her some structure and strictures that helped her create something memorable. So maybe I’m not so jealous, after all, because if her next book doesn’t have an established backbone–if she has to make it all up–will she be up to it? I can see myself in that situation, having a panic attack. Then again, after such a successful first book, I’d imagine the second novel is always daunting. Especially now that feedback doesn’t come exclusively from respected reviewers, but from any opinionated yahoo on the internet.