By Emma Cline
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.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect after reading the blurb on the book as there wasn’t much given away. However, within a few pages I knew this was one of those books that would stay with after reading it. This book is full of intrigue, suspense, sexual tension and a sometime cynical take on gender in society.
It is set in the summer of 1969 in California where a chance encounter changes one girls life forever and shows how little decisions can have a big impact on the trajectory of someone’s life.
When the book begins Edie Boyd is a fourteen year old girl with a lot of insecurities about her body and her place in the world. She feels ignored by the boys in her life and bored of her long-term friendship with best friend Connie, a girl who comes across as dull and dreary. Constantly trying to please her absent father and her get her newly divorced mother to notice her Evie’s home life is one of benign neglect.
Until one summers day she comes across some girls with long, uncombed hair and dirty dresses dancing about in the water at the lake. One girl in particular, Suzanne, captures her attention and Evie is drawn in.
Suzanne and the other girls live at The Ranch, to some it is a dilapidated area and little more than a rubbish site, but to Evie The Ranch represents freedom from her mediocre life. Evie hasn’t heard the rumours of a cult of sorts, of young runaway girls encouraged to offer sexual pleasure to older men, of animal sacrifices and a charismatic ‘leader’ who seems to be able to charm money from people. If she knew would it be enough to stop her from being drawn in?
The opening line of the book introduces us to the girls and their ability to capture Evie’s attention,
I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls. We learn early on that Evie is lacking in self-esteem and is constantly comparing herself against other girls and finding herself lacking.
These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile. Suzanne and the other girls capture Evie’s attention and that of the other people in the park but whereas the others seem to look on with disdain and fear Evie sees something to aspire to. The description of the girls as being
sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water and as
messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness, and ugliness at the same time could both be taken as subtle warnings from the author.
We learn about what happened at the ranch from little snippets spiced throughout the book. There is never so much information that the reader feels as though that is it and the mystery is solved.
As an adult Evie,
tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences, working as a live-in aide and appears to live quite a transient life. She lives in her friend Dan’s summer house on a beach that is too cold for tourists to visit, in a town where the teenagers all die tragically, a forlorn and unwanted place.
Via Dan’s son and his girlfriend Sasha we learn a lot about Evelyn and what happened in 1969 but are left with a lot of questions at that time.
“It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperback with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach.”
I liked the way the reader examined the difference in power and feeling in the relationship between the sexes in a somewhat cynical way but insightful way. For example, if you look at the relationship between Evelyn’s mother and father this is illustrated many a time,
My mother tiptoed around my father, and so did I and again
My father, who kissed her with a formality that embarrassed us all.
Evelyn’s relationship with her father further illustrates my point,
I tried to save up things to tell him, combing through my days for something to provoke a glint of interest. It didn’t occur to me, until I was an adult, that it was strange to know so much about him when he seemed to know nothing about me.
There are also a lot of general comments which show the power imbalance.
“That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”
Suzanne comes across as a strong young woman but even she is subject to that power imbalance. When Evelyn comments that she remembered Suzanne’s hair we learn that Russell told her and the other girls not to cut their hair.
Suzanne is quite an intriguing character as you never get to know the real Suzanne. Evelyn’s version of her always seems to be slightly generous and touching on obsession/hero worship.
The girl wasn’t beautiful, I realized seeing her again. It was something else. Like pictures I had seen of the actor John Huston’s daughter. Her face could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.
Russell, the enigmatic leader of the cult is introduced much as you would expect, as a godlike figure.
You’ll love him, ‘she said. ‘He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. One of the other girls, Donna, says that he is not like any other human. He is able to receive messages from animals. That he could heal a man with his hands and various other fantastical things. The only person who isn’t 100% taken in by all this is Evelyn but then she saves all this hero worship for Suzanne.
On the whole this book was an amazing read, I love it and I have many more notes on it but a lot of those would contain some form of spoiler. All I will say is that this is deserving of all the hype it is getting.
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