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Novel set in California – a top read for Summer 2016

18th August 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline, novel set in California.

Virtually every list for recommended reads Summer 2016 have seemed to feature The Girls, with its eye catching cover of faded summer and a heart on the reverse painted in smeary blood.


From the outset the book has a hot, claustrophobic feel to it. Fourteen year old Evie is best friends with Connie, but they soon have a falling out. Evie’s mum is unaware of this, preoccupied as she is with her latest beau after the break-up with Evie’s dad. This is the Summer of 1969 before Evie starts at boarding school. Rudderless, conflicted and alone and in need of emotional succour.

A hippie bus pulls up and she is on board without a second glance. Everyone is older than her, and with just a hint of misgiving she is embraced into the group. They hang out at the ranch under the munificent and watchful eye of Russell, to whom all are in thrall. It’s an inclusive life, Evie soon starts to feel part of the group, and the lure of the lifestyle, including the drugs and ultimately the sex, is hard for a young adolescent to withstand. Suzanne becomes her totem figure and a symbiotic relationship develops – Evie looks up to her, feels attached, and is lost without her. Suzanne loves her little hanger-on.

At home, Evie is largely unmissed, so the seductive lure of the ranch continues to hold her. Consciously she notes subtle change in the relationship dynamics of the people living there but disregards them. She registers the squalor, the poor food supply, the shabbiness of the surroundings, and when she accepts a lift from Tom, he puts into word much of what she senses. Once vocalised, it is hard to put back all her misgivings away and ignore. Russell becomes increasingly agitated – the languid, loving man who seduced Evie is now an irascible and unpredictable force, hell bent on carrying out revenge on someone he perceives to have done him an injustice. He has his willing acolytes to hand who are pliable and ready for action.

novel set in california

The US cover of The Girls

This is a cloying read and deserves the exposure it has been getting. An enticing cover and VERY different from its American counterpart.

The story is clearly inspired by the cult family founded by Charles Manson who ended up killing 9 people. There is a looming sense of unease as the story progresses. Some chapters are written from Evie’s adult perspective, where she mulls over this formative but destructive period in her life.

At the start, I rather struggled to get into the book, and might have given up early on because the prose is like an over-stuffed cushion, full to bursting with similes and adjectives that are redolent of some creative writing schools. But I didn’t give up and the author soon found her more natural voice – reverting, however, occasionally to the florid style of the early pages. The narrative sucks the readers in, and we come to believe what we are told. Russell is for example charismatic, of course, but this isn’t really evidenced in the descriptions. That’s cult mentality perfectly rendered!

Tina for the TripFiction Team

You can connect with Emma via her website and on Facebook

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And check out the GIF produced by Penguin Books to publicise the book, for their Summer Campaign “Travel #bybook”

novel set in california

For more novels to inspire #literarywanderlust set in California, just click here

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  1. User: FictionFan

    Posted on: 22/08/2016 at 5:39 pm

    Yes, that scene with Tom was excellent, I thought – a great way to bring out Evie’s underlying doubts. It was that bit that brought the musical Hair to my mind – the clash between the ‘straight’ world and hippy culture, and the lack of understanding between the two. Great review!