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Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award • Shortlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize • The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice • Emma Cline—One of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists
Praise for The Girls
“Spellbinding . . . a seductive and arresting coming-of-age story.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary . . . Debut novels like this are rare, indeed.”—The Washington Post
“Hypnotic.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Gorgeous.”—Los Angeles Times
“Astonishing.”—The Boston Globe
“Superbly written.”—James Wood, The New Yorker
“Intensely consuming.”—Richard Ford
“A spectacular achievement.”—Lucy Atkins, The Times
“Compelling and startling.”—The Economist
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Adapted from THE GIRLS by Emma Cline, available everywhere June 14th, 2016.
I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.
I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter—I knew they were different from everyone else in the park. Families milling in a vague line, waiting for sausages and burgers from the open grill. Women in checked blouses scooting into their boyfriends’ sides, kids tossing eucalyptus buttons at the feral-looking chickens that overran the strip. These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.
I studied the girls with a shameless, blatant gape: it didn’t seem possible that they might look over and notice me. My hamburger was forgotten in my lap, the breeze blowing in minnow stink from the river. It was an age when I’d immediately scan and rank other girls, keeping up a constant tally of how I fell short, and I saw right away that the black-haired one was the prettiest. I had expected this, even before I’d been able to make out their faces. There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass. She was flanked by a skinny redhead and an older girl, dressed with the same shabby afterthought. As if dredged from a lake. All their cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park. Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriends’ hands. The sun spiked through the trees, like always—the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets—but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too—you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.
But that was all happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma with its low-hipped ranch houses, the covered wagon perpetually parked in front of the Hi-Ho Restaurant. The sun-scorched crosswalks. I was fourteen but looked much younger. People liked to say this to me. Connie swore I could pass for sixteen, but we told each other a lot of lies. We’d been friends all through junior high, Connie waiting for me outside classrooms as patient as a cow, all our energy subsumed into the theatrics of friendship. She was plump but didn’t dress like it, in cropped cotton shirts with Mexican embroidery, too-tight skirts that left an angry rim on her upper thighs. I’d always liked her in a way I never had to think about, like the fact of my own hands.
Come September, I’d be sent off to the same boarding school my mother had gone to. They’d built a well-tended campus around an old convent in Monterey, the lawns smooth and sloped. Shreds of fog in the mornings, brief hits of the nearness of salt water. It was an all-girls school, and I’d have to wear a uniform—low-heeled shoes and no makeup, middy blouses threaded with navy ties. It was a holding place, really, enclosed by a stone wall and populated with bland, moon-faced daughters. Camp Fire Girls and Future Teachers shipped off to learn 160 words a minute, shorthand. To make dreamy, overheated promises to be one another’s bridesmaids at Royal Hawaiian weddings.
My impending departure forced a newly critical distance on my friendship with Connie. I’d started to notice certain things, almost against my will. How Connie said, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else,” as if we were shopgirls in London instead of inexperienced adolescents in the farm belt of Sonoma County. We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm. It pained me to imagine how our twosome appeared to others, marked as the kind of girls who belonged to each other. Those sexless fixtures of high schools.
Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoons. Waste the hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s suggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle. The constant project of our girl selves seeming to require odd and precise attentions.
As an adult, I wonder at the pure volume of time I wasted. The feast and famine we were taught to expect from the world, the countdowns in magazines that urged us to prepare thirty days in advance for the first day of school.
Day 28: Apply a face mask of avocado and honey.
Day 14: Test your makeup look in different lights (natural, office, dusk).
Back then, I was so attuned to attention. 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 anyone happen to glance over. As a child, I had once been part of a charity dog show and paraded around a pretty collie on a leash, a silk bandanna around its neck. How thrilled I’d been at the sanctioned performance: the way I went up to strangers and let them admire the dog, my smile as indulgent and constant as a salesgirl’s, and how vacant I’d felt when it was over, when no one needed to look at me anymore.
I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.
Adapted from THE GIRLS by Emma Cline. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Cline. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Reading Group Guide
1. The Girls takes place in the summer of 1969. When Evie explains the era to Sasha, she says “It was a different time … Everyone ran around” (144). Do you think that what happened to Evie could have only happened in the 1960s? Or is her story a timeless story? How might her story be different, if it happened today?
2. One of the central relationships in The Girls is between Evie and Suzanne. What did you make of their connection? The first time they meet, Suzanne is hesitant to let Evie come along (94-95). Does she sense something about Evie from the very beginning? What might it be?
3. Evie describes the “constant project of our girl selves” and the specific attentions that project requires—the make-up, the grooming rituals. Did you see a parallel in Evie’s mother’s behavior? What are the similarities and differences between Evie’s “constant project” and her mother’s new search for “an aim, a plan”?
4. 1. In looking back at the time before her parents got divorced, Evie describes “the freedom of being so young that no one expected anything from me” (78). Do you think that freedom still exists when she is a teenager—or has it already disappeared? Why might that sense of freedom start to vanish, as she gets older?
5. Evie delineates the difference between the attention girls can get from boys, and the attention they can get from other girls: “Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved” (34). What do you make of this? Is something all of the girls in this story are aware of, consciously or unconsciously? Do you think it holds true forever, or does it change as girls grow older?
6. At the same time, though, Evie says that she “didn’t really believe friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you” (49). How does this notion change and evolve as the story goes on? Do you consider Evie’s relationship with Suzanne to be a friendship, or something different?
7. Evie is constantly sizing up other girls and women, measuring their beauty and assessing them “with brutal and emotionless judgment” (34). But Suzanne, she decides, “wasn’t beautiful … It was something else” (68). How does this complicate her understanding of, or attraction to, Suzanne? Is beauty something that is valued by Russell, Suzanne and others, in the world of the ranch?
8. What did you make of Evie’s dynamic with Sasha? What similarities to—and differences from—her teenage self might Evie see in Sasha? Why do you think Evie tells Sasha so much about her past?
9. Why do you think Evie decides to mess with Teddy Dutton, when she brings his dog back to his house? Does she have a newfound feeling of power, after spending time at the ranch? Do you think that interaction with Teddy paves the way for her and the girls’ later intrusion into the Dutton house?
10. Were you surprised by the character of Tamar, and her relationship with Evie? How does Tamar differ from the other girls and women in the story—from Suzanne, from Connie, from Evie’s mother?
11. Looking back, Evie questions whether she might have known what Suzanne and the others were planning, and whether she would have participated: “Maybe I would have done something, too. Maybe it would have been easy” (321). Do you think Evie would have gone through with it, if she had stayed in the car? Why, or why not?
12. At the end, Evie describes Suzanne letting her go as “a gift” (351), allowing Evie to have the normal life that Suzanne herself could not. But she reflects that it might have been easier to be punished and redeemed, as Suzanne was. What did you make of Evie’s still-conflicted feelings about that chapter in her life? Would it ever be possible for someone in Evie’s situation to make peace with the past? If so, what do you think prevents her from doing so?