In one week, I read from one side of the Sixties, to the other; from the East Coast to the West; from the top 1% to near the bottom. Both reads feature a group of women and a charismatic man.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin, explores the New York of Truman Capote and his coterie of ultra, well-heeled women friends. https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/the-swans-of-fifth-avenue-by-melanie-benjamin/
The next book I picked up was another of the summer’s barn-burners: The Girls, by Emma Cline. Evie Boyd is a 14-year-old Californian, somewhat adrift due to her unhinged mother’s attempts at rediscovery and dating and her father’s departure for a young girlfriend. On her own, Evie spots a threesome of girls — dirty, beautiful, alluring — and soon finds herself accompanying them to “the ranch,” the place where the girls live, devoting themselves as acolytes to demi-god Russell.
The Girls reimagines the Charles Manson tribe, the Tate-LaBiance murders, and Manson himself, setting the scene in Northern California. A Beach Boy-like musician, Mitch Lewis, first encourages, then extinguishes Russell’s dreams of stardom. The girls sexually service Russell and anyone he gives them to for use. They steal for him, clean for him, starve for him.
How often I replayed this moment again and again, until it gained a meaningful pitch: when Suzanne nudged me so I first knew the man walking toward the fire was Russell. My first thought was shock — he’d looked young as he approached, but then I saw he was at least a decade older than Suzanne. Maybe even as old as my mother. Dressed in dirty Wranglers and a buckskin shirt, though his feet were bare — how strange that was, how they all walked barefoot through the weeds and dog shit as if nothing were there. A girl got to her knees beside him, touching his leg.
Evie is used by Russell, but more she becomes enamored in a breathless, devoted, do-anything-for-you way with Suzanne, one of Russell’s girls. Evie can’t stay away from Suzanne and Suzanne can’t stay away from Russell. Cline uses an adult Evie forced by young visitors who know of her infamy to tell and reflect on young Evie’s journey through the ranch.
I’ve always avoided Manson-alia. I haven’t read or seen Helter Skelter. I missed the original press coverage and trial. Reading The Girls did not make me regret that earlier decision. But, at least according to the New York Times’ review of The Girls, that though the stories are similar, there are elements omitted, and for that I am sure I am grateful.
But Cline withholds the truly vicious Manson who kept his followers paranoid, awaited a race war, sodomized a 13-year-old girl in front of the others, beat some girls and used others for knife-throwing games and traded their bodies like currency. This keeps Evie sympathetic. If she doesn’t glimpse pure evil, can she be blamed for signing on? It’s also conceivable that Cline flinched, for in not pushing Evie to the edge, she eludes a harrowing, possibly profound exploration of her soul.
What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk.
The Girls is also the second book I’ve read recently where food becomes a clear economic symbol. Evie’s mother cooks meatballs and Chinese spare ribs and McCalls’ mandarin orange dessert. Russell’s girls dumpster-dive for old chicken, frozen cake, brown vegetables. Evie’s unexpected guests bring a store-bought frozen pizza, the good kind — “expensive.” Though Russell is referenced singing his songs and playing his guitar, badly, there’s no particular music invoked. I pictured it as sort of Bob Dylan meets John Denver.
I can’t unreservedly recommend The Girls. It has been highly praised by The New York Times among others. My hesitation comes in two forms: one, I was just flat uncomfortable reading this. Two, I don’t know. How hard it is to be creative when the whole plot is laid out for you? Maybe I’m not being fair, but Cline seems a bit opportunistic to me. Either write a history or write a novel and change things up a little bit more.
This is a tough one. First of all, the whole book sort of takes away your appetite. They were drinking, drugging throughout, definitely at the ranch, but even adult Evie was smoking pot with her unexpected guests. It’s not the kind of book you can plan a fun menu around. I would serve anything but chicken! Maybe pizza, maybe spare ribs, maybe cocktail meatballs. Definitely steer away from any of the ranch food.
A little Beach Boys, a little Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles’ Helter Skelter.