Emma Cline’s Fairy Tale Gone Wrong

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side by side series of the cover of Emma Cline's The Girls

Anyone who has spent a lot of time with small children knows that they thrive on repetition. When they like a certain story, they want to hear it over and over again. For my family, this has meant spending the past two and a half months reading, watching, and retelling fairy tales. Every recreational moment—bath time, screen time, masked stroll time—is dedicated to this obsession. Spending so much time with these fairy tales as an adult, conveying them and adapting them and attempting to explain their inner logic to a small child—has worked them into my gray matter, returning them to the glory they knew when I was a child, as lenses through which to read everything else.

It just so happens that I’ve also been reading something fantastic lately, a fairy tale gone very wrong—The Girls by Emma Cline. Flashing back to California in the 1960s, The Girls is the first-person narrative of Evie, who was fourteen years old when she became involved with a cultish group of drifters inspired by the Manson Family and narrowly avoided taking part in a gruesome homicide reminiscent of the Tate murders. Picked up one afternoon by a group of female followers who speak of their leader, Russel, with reverent tones and starry eyes, Evie becomes a frequent dweller of the ranch the outlaws inhabit, performing dirty chores, eating dumpster discards, and doing drugs, only returning to her mother’s home when she’s stayed away too long or when she gets into trouble.

To Evie, a young girl whose parents are too preoccupied with their respective post-divorce transformations to truly see her and support her, leaving the mild, mind-numbing safety of her small town and stepping into the ranch is like stepping into a fairy tale world. Everything that is impossible, improper, and out of reach in her normal life is available there. No more hanging out on school steps or in friend’s garages. No more feigning an obsession over boys when girls are actually more appealing. No more hours wasted on pointless beauty rituals intended to impress no one in particular. No more aching envy of anyone who liberates themselves by running away from home. Instead, the ranch offers freedom, intimacy, a rejection of the rules, and a feeling of shared purpose—as nameless and arbitrary as it might be. Life on the ranch is dirty, depraved, and uncaring. Most importantly, it includes Suzanne.

Suzanne is the coveted beauty in the tower, the miller’s daughter in the locked cellar, the treasured child in the walnut shell. Her existence has Evie playing both the part of the innocent farm girl arriving at a magical land and of a Prince Charming, intent on saving his princess from the dragon. Evie wants every part of Suzanne: her friendship, her guidance, and her body. But Suzanne’s appeal stems precisely from how unlike a fairy tale princess she is. She’s messy, dirty, confident, cold at times, intimate, and unattainable. She flouts ideas of possession and fidelity, offers her heart only when the mood strikes, and is razor-focused on the only loyalty she upholds—to Russel. For as powerful as Suzanne is, as independent as she appears, she is driven by an even stronger force: the story’s villain. And what better villain to base Cline’s version of evil on than the greatest villain of all time? Russel is as controlling and confusing as Manson, his source of magnetism similarly enigmatic. He is handsome enough, soulful enough, and talented enough, but nothing more than that. And yet everything that happens at the ranch is done in his bidding. Pleasing him seems to come as naturally as breathing to the young people of the ranch, their reverence holding strong even when they receive so little in return.

Like any villain, Russel has his major victims. The innocent people whose murders he dictates, his disciples who are imprisoned alongside him for faithfully following his orders, the many visitors passing through the ranch, leaving only after they’ve parted with their money. Anyone who inspires his ire is at risk of suffering his violence. But there are others, like Evie, whose victimhood is smaller, quieter, and in whom the logic of hurting is more difficult to analyze. The losses Evie suffers are harder to delineate, but as readers find out, they linger for decades to come. They are the loss of her virginity to a near stranger. The loss of her family’s trust. The loss of her naïve faith that she was safe in the world. And, perhaps worst of all, the loss of the sense that her desires belong to her alone, hers to determine and pursue. The evil Russel inflicts on Evie—as well as on some of the other girls—is in confirming the suspicion already rising in their young minds, that as women their lot will forever be decided by a man—that they will never be the ones pulling the strings, always puppets, pawns, playthings. Like the miller’s daughter trapped in the cellar, trying to spin gold to save her life, Thumbelina having to choose between multiple imprisoning suitors, Belle choosing life in an isolated castle with a beast over her close-minded village, Evie and the other girls have stepped into the promise of freedom only to discover that they would never be the ones to call the shots, their fate forever decided by a man.

It is this conclusion, perhaps, that is the most fairy tale element of all: women hold no control over their own lives, subject instead to the whims of men. These women discover that no prize, not even marriage to a prince, can give them back their sense of autonomy. These women simply wanted love and friendship, adventure and fun, and are left with but one thing to look forward: an anger brewing and stewing under their complacent smiles, freeform and dangerous. An anger thunderous enough to kill.