Quantum Girl Theory
Part detective novel, part ghost story, this brilliant debut asks a tantalizing question: What really happens when a girl goes missing?
“A thrilling, many-faceted, gothic novel: Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory belongs in the same company as the work of Shirley Jackson and Carmen Maria Machado.”—Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022—CrimeReads
Mary Garrett has a gift for finding missing girls, a special kind of clairvoyance she calls “the sight.” Lured by a poster and the promise of a reward, she arrives at a small town in the Jim Crow South to discover that not one but three girls have vanished—two of whom are Black, and whose disappearances have gone uninvestigated outside their own community. She sets out to find them.
As it turns out, Mary is herself a “missing girl.” In another life, she was a Bennington College sophomore named Paula Jean Welden, who disappeared one night in 1946. The case captivated the nation’s imagination, triggering front-page headlines, scores of dubious sightings, and a wave of speculation: Who was Paula Jean, really, and why had she disappeared?
As Mary’s search for the three missing girls intensifies, so do the glimpses of Paula Jean’s other possible lives: She is a circus showgirl hiding from her past, a literary forger on the verge of being caught, a McCarthy-era informant in love with a woman she meets in a Communist cell. With the signals multiplying, the locals beginning to resent her presence, and threats coming from all sides, Mary wonders whether she can trust anyone—most of all herself.
Both a captivating mystery and a powerful thought experiment, Quantum Girl Theory spins out a new way of seeing those who seem to disappear before our eyes.
In this intriguing if diffuse speculative debut, Ryan imagines what might have happened to "quiet" and "unremarkable" Paula Jean Welden, a real-life Bennington College student who went missing in 1946. Ryan proposes a "quantum girl theory" to account for the phenomenon that "a missing girl becomes everything that everyone thinks she might be," and uses the conceit to tell a series of parallel stories. Alternately, Ryan has Paula Jean dead by a teacher's hand, a circus performer, a writer after stealing another woman's identity, and other possibilities. As a clairvoyant, Paula Jean goes by Mary and takes on the pain of others "the way a boxer might take punches." She hopes to collect a reward for a missing white girl in 1961 North Carolina, and gets embroiled in solving the disappearances of two Black girls. While there are common elements to all the versions of Paula Jean her red parka, her "Sight," and love for a girl she went to high school with there are many starts and stops as Ryan explores the different outcomes with little forward momentum. Still, she has a knack for clever turns of phrase and imbues her concept with smart insights on the public's fascination with missing girls and young women. It's a little rocky, but it's worth a look. Agent: Dorian Karchmar, WME.