I’ve been catching up with the second season of Aquarius, the NBC series set in the age of and leading up to the Manson murders in August 1969. “You’re looking at life through a dirty window,” one character says in the third episode, and I know what she’s talking about. Everything and everybody looks murky in the sepia shadows, as if the camera lens was smeared with dust. This is in sharp contrast to the clarity of Emma Cline’s ambitious first novel The Girls (Random House, digital galley), which covers the same period, although she changes the names and relocates events from L.A. to the Bay area.
“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer.” This is Evie Boyd looking back from disappointed middle age to when she was 14, formless and yearning in the way 14-year-old girls are. A child of divorce set to go to boarding school in the fall, she becomes aware of three long-haired girls making their way through a local park. “Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She sees them again in a grimy black school bus, dumpster diving for food and shoplifting toilet paper. She is especially drawn to the fierce, feral Suzanne, who shepherds Evie to the rundown ranch where a troubadour called Russell holds sway over a squalid commune. Evie easily succumbs to Russell’s scruffy charisma but her loyalty and love lie with Suzanne.
These scenes from that long-ago summer are interspersed with chapters of present-day Evie, a caregiver whose house-sitting gig is interrupted by the arrival of the homeowner’s druggie son and his teenage girlfriend. The son announces Evie’s past with reverence, but she downplays her role in the famous cult because she didn’t kill anyone. Why not? For that answer the narrative returns to those hot August nights humming with menace, their chilling aftermath.
Cline’s prose is mostly hypnotic as Evie recounts that pivotal time, although the occasional overwritten sentence calls attention to itself and detracts from the fascinating story. Still, watching Aquarius, I’m ready to reread The Girls.
If not for Cline’s buzzed-about novel, I suspect more attention would be paid to Alison Umminger’s smart YA novel American Girls (Flatiron Books, digital books), in which the memories of the Manson murders shadow the present day.
Atlanta teen Anna is a bit of a brat and something of a mean girl at book’s beginning. Feeling left out of her divorced parents’ new families, she uses her stepmother’s credit card to buy a ticket to L.A. to see her half-sister, a striving actress. Delia agrees with Anna that their mother isn’t the best, and works out a deal so that Anna can stay with her for the summer, provided she earns money to pay back her plane fare. Conveniently, Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger is an indie film director and hires Anna to research Hollywood murders, especially the Manson girls. Anna is surprised to discover parallels between herself and the “regular” girls who became killers, and is disturbed when it appears a stalker has targeted Delia. Hanging out on the set of a popular teen drama scripted by Delia’s current boyfriend, Anna also is exposed to competitive backlot Hollywood, where fame proves fleeting for young starlets. Meanwhile, news from back home has her rethinking her relationships.
Anna sounds like a real 15-year-old — smart but insecure, sarcastic yet vulnerable. Her candid voice reveals the complexities of her life in particular and those of girls in general. Did I mention that American Girls is also a first novel? It sure doesn’t read like one.