Novel by Midd Alumna Hits Shelves

By FINNE MURPHY

It’s an understatement to say that the Paul Ward ’25 Memorial Prize merely recognizes extraordinary writing talent among the first-years of Middlebury College — it seems instead to be a premonition of the success to come for its recipients.

This is certainly the case for Emma Cline ’10 who won the Paul Ward Prize in 2007 for outstanding young writers while a sophomore at Middlebury. Her short story, entitled “What is Lost,” took top spot. Fewer than ten years later her first novel, The Girls, sent ripples across the literary world.

The book, which came as the first of a three-book deal with Penguin Random House, recounts the summer of 1969 that Evie Boyd spends entangled in a cult bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Manson Family.

Evie Boyd, the story’s narrator, recalls the summer when she turned fourteen and stumbled upon an unsettlingly pretty girl rummaging through the dumpster. Evie, driven by her desire to be liked, eventually joins a cultlike commune lead by a charismatic leader.

Yet it is not the group’s male leader who draws her in, but instead the girls — particularly the dark-haired Suzanne — he recruits for his commune living on a farm who do. The themes explore the lengths to which people go to feel loved, to feel seen and to feel powerful. 

Cline, who went on to complete her graduate studies at Columbia University, writes with a hyperreal focus. She details the most mundane events in a burningly urgent way, the way a fourteen-year-old would obsess over the same things, for instance the gaze of an older boy, how her skin looks, the words of adults around her. 

It is difficult not to compare the plot to the events that took place in the California desert in 1969. These events began in 1967 when Charles Manson, after his release from prison, began gathering followers who were mostly women. Over the course of a few years, the Manson Family evolved into a group of murderers, killing seven people.

The Girls is a quasi-retelling. Its plot certainly mimics the real events of the Mason family, like group driving an old school bus, dumpster diving to find food and escalating into darker and crueler territories. 

What Cline does not do is write-off her main character.

“I took it as a challenge to write a book about teenage girls, who are so marginalized and objectified and given no agency and subjectivity,” Cline says. “How do you write about them in a way that takes them seriously? I knew this topic was begging a certain literary type to dismiss it.”

The story is told through the lens of a girl and focuses on how this girl’s relationships with other women are shaped by this disturbing experience with the commune — an experience cast beyond most of what we have encountered before. 

Cline shapes her world by examining how we examine ourselves and questioning how we question others. It is told in the spellbinding way a car crash happens; though we might be disgusted and confused by what happens, we are also fascinated. All the while, the plot consumes us with the feelings we are all too familiar with but would rather not stomach: jealousy, embarrassment, the need for attention and discomfort.

Visceral and tightly woven, The Girls is neither Cline’s first success nor her last.