Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An edgy, unsettling take on vanished women in Erin Kate Ryan's Quantum Girl Theory

“A missing girl rewrites an entire story the moment she disappears.”

A novel that’s been sitting in my NetGalley queue for too long, Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory is speculative historical fiction with a vital message. “On December 1, 1946,” as the prologue outlines, “Paula Jean Welden put on a bright red parka, left her dorm, and...” vanished, leaving America to speculate on what happened to the pretty, blonde Bennington College sophomore. Did she have a terrible home life she wanted to flee? Did she leave the country and establish a new identity? Did she meet a violently abusive boyfriend? Was she kidnapped by a stranger and violently murdered?  There are multiple possibilities.

But this real-life case remains unsolved.

The main plotline occurs in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in 1961. Disembarking after a bus trip, Mary Garrett has followed the trail of a poster offering a $7000 reward for information on the whereabouts of another missing girl named Polly Starking. Mary’s motives aren’t altruistic; she’s somewhat of an opportunistic scavenger, going from town to town offering help in finding lost women using her claimed clairvoyant abilities, collecting and living off the payments even when the women aren’t found alive. She has saved some girls, but not nearly enough of them.

The twist here is that Mary had been a missing person herself, the girl once known as Paula Jean. Mary’s unpredictable flashes of second sight began five years earlier and cause her tremendous anguish, since they grant her glimpses of people’s fearful lives and final moments.

Ryan excels at illustrating the unsettling atmosphere of this small town in the Jim Crow South in the early '60s: the Starking household, with its “cheerful yellow Formica table” and vague air of oppressive patriarchy; the pushy town sheriff and his lurking presence; and stories about two Black girls gone missing which Mary learns about, in unorthodox fashion, from Martha, the Black maid at the cheap motel where Mary stays. As Mary insinuates herself into the Starking family, she sees hints about Polly (who shares her own former nickname, “Paul”) and theorizes a connection between her and the other two girls, whose disappearances nobody cares about, aside from their families.

The author’s writing echoes with honesty about society’s lack of attention to troubled women, aside from the lurid fascination at their disappearance, and how race affects these perceptions. That and the North Carolina storyline, with its pervasive sense of dread, are the strongest parts of the book. However, Ryan intersperses these episodes with long chapters exploring alternate continuations of Paula Jean Welden’s story. Some people and motifs recur in these tales and in Mary’s: a bright red parka, a memorable wristwatch, another young woman Mary once knew. While author's purpose in showing these multiple timelines is understandable, the result is confusing and causes the momentum to slow. The ambiguous ending doesn’t help.

The novel’s Goodreads reviews aren’t stellar, with an overall rating of 2.91. I wouldn’t disagree, but for me that number works best as an average: four stars or more for the principal story, two or less for the “alternate history” spinouts. If the idea of this novel intrigues you, you may want to stick to the main plotline and skim or skip the rest.

Quantum Girl Theory was published by Random House in March 2022.


  1. Katharine O4:46 AM

    It's good to look at different genres now and then. I just this week started an exchange with our book club where we highlight one book in our own TBR that the others might not have yet encountered. Of course this will likely lead to my own TBR expanding.... Thanks for the post!

    1. That's a great idea and sounds like it'll introduce everyone to books that fell under the radar. I don't read much speculative fiction anymore, but I was looking to pick up something different, and this fit.

  2. I am not sure this one would be for me. Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

    1. It probably wasn't for me either, LOL!