The hubbub around “The Girls” threatens to trample what’s so deeply affecting about it.

The noise started in 2014 when an unknown 25-year-old writer named Emma Cline sold her debut novel about the Manson family murders for a reported $2 million as part of a three-book deal.

It’s not about the money, of course. Except that it is.

An advance that kooky along with a subject that sensational virtually guarantees at-home features (A garden shed in Brooklyn!), gentle Q&As (What’s on your nightstand?) and prominent reviews in all the right places (Voilà!). But beyond the glitter and gore, is the novel itself really that good?

Prepare to swallow your skepticism.

(Random House)

First, though, if you’re looking for another stab at “Helter Skelter,” you’ll be disappointed. “The Girls” is inspired by Charles Manson and the grisly murders his followers committed in 1969, but Cline’s story shoves that horror into the background. The novel focuses instead on its narrator, Evie Boyd, who has spent her life letting “the days crumble away like debris from a cliff face.” She’s a dejected adult, drawn to “the in-between spaces of other people’s existences . . . cultivating a genteel invisibility.” While housesitting one night, Evie meets a teenage girl and her obnoxious boyfriend. Helpless to intervene in what she senses is an exploitative relationship, she sees in that young woman the same mingled pride and desperation that briefly drew her into a murderous cult decades ago.

The novel unfolds as a reluctant act of retrospection, shifting back and forth between Evie’s static life in the present day and that infamous time when she was a 14-year-old girl with a face “blatant with need.” While Vietnam burned and universities erupted, she and her best friend were cloistered away in Northern California farm country, applying beauty tips and fantasizing about romance. “So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act,” she writes. “Trying hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love.” Evie’s parents recently have divorced, and she finds herself adrift between her distracted father and her floundering mother. “I was so attuned to attention,” she remembers. “I dressed to provoke love, tugging my neckline lower, settling a wistful stare on my face whenever I went out in public that implied many deep and promising thoughts, should anybody happen to glance over.”

This emotional desperation, kept tamped down beneath a pose of ferocious nonchalance, makes Evie “an eager mark” for some otherworldly girls she sees in the park one day. Although they’re Dumpster-diving for food, Evie is awed: To her the girls look as “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She makes eye contact with one of them, a young woman she will soon know as Suzanne, “tragic and separate, like royalty in exile.” Even across the decades, Evie can remember Suzanne’s powerful first impression: “She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.” Eager to ingratiate herself, Evie pretends to shoplift toilet paper for Suzanne and is soon welcomed into the “family” of a drippy egomaniac named Russell, Cline’s broad refashioning of Charles Manson.

The most remarkable quality of this novel is Cline’s ability to articulate the anxieties of adolescence in language that’s gorgeously poetic without mangling the authenticity of a teenager’s consciousness. The adult’s melancholy reflection and the girl’s swelling impetuousness are flawlessly braided together. As Evie’s tale of those fateful weeks moves along, we see how easily she learns to lie to her parents, how readily she offers herself up to Russell and how acutely she wants Suzanne’s affection.

(Megan Cline/Author Emma Cline)

But for a story that traffics in the lurid notoriety of the Manson murders, “The Girls” is an extraordinary act of restraint. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Cline has written a wise novel that’s never showy: a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror. Evie alludes to those infamous murders only with long-simmering shame and hushed amazement at how accidentally a life can split toward — or away — from disaster.

While our cultural consciousness has remained mesmerized by Manson, “The Girls” is far more fascinated by his female acolytes. In an essay in the Paris Review, Cline recalled how young she was when they first captured her imagination — more than 30 years after the murders: “I became obsessed with the Manson girls,” she wrote. “I stayed up late into the night, reading the different books, watching the scratched videos on YouTube. In the photographs I saw of the girls — pictures striking for their strangely domestic quality — I recognized something of myself at 13, the same blip of longing in their eyes.”

For Cline, then, the Manson cult — fictionalized here as Russell’s psychedelic commune — offers a difference in degree but not in kind from the poisonous climate so many young women endure. Loneliness tempts them to imagine they can trade access to their bodies for emotional support and empowerment, and by a barrage of blunt social cues, they’re trained to apologize, to negotiate impossible ideals of purity and lust. “Just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself,” Evie says. “Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board. . . . If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch.” Even as a teen, she’s already an expert on “how to mock myself before other people could.”

The modern-day setting that frames these dramatic events seems comparatively staid, but it serves its own grim purpose by suggesting that little has changed for young women — or even older women. “None of this was rare,” Evie notes as she recalls some fresh creep she endured later in life. “Things like this happened hundreds of times. Maybe more.”

But debut novels like this are rare, indeed.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Emma Cline

Random House. 368 pp. $27