Queer Safe Space in Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory

Quantum Girl Theory is a novel about the real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Welden, a freshman at Bennington College, who left the campus one December afternoon in 1946 to take a walk in the woods and never came back. 

The search for Paula Jean, a young white woman, held the attention of the nation for weeks, and theories about her blossomed: she eloped, she had amnesia, she took her own life, she died of exposure, she was murdered, she was abducted by “supernatural forces.” 

In Quantum Girl Theory, queer author Erin Kate Ryan provides a fictional solution to the mystery—but without the usual deductive plotting. 

In true crime and detective fiction, a missing girl story is often about the troubled yet brilliant detectives who attempt to unravel the crime. It’s about all the people left behind. And the missing girl is just a rickety portrait built of their memories and suspect motivations. Ryan’s debut novel leapfrogs over these tropes by centering the story on the experience of the missing girl—on the idea of safety betrayed—and by imagining not just one version of the life or death she disappeared into, but many. As she writes in the prologue, “Quantum Girl Theory: A missing girl’s potential life stamps a new world into being. All her paths are possible—they are happening all at once, and in symphony.”

In Ryan’s version of the Paula Jean Welden story, she is the lover of a poetry professor, she is a pony-riding circus showgirl, she is a medium searching for other missing girls—and she is all of these things and more, simultaneously. This approach allows Ryan to subvert the historical focus on missing white girls, creating queer identities among the many Paula Jeans and pulling in parallel storylines for black characters. 

The Paula Jean I’m most intrigued by appears in a chapter called, “Objects of Fine Design.” This Paula Jean fell in love with Beth, her Bennington roommate—and her father punished her for it by subjecting her to electroshock therapy. When the chapter opens, she’s been hiding from him for four years. She lives in New York under the name Lois.

In the course of  “Objects of Fine Design,” Lois stumbles into a queer community. As a reader, I noticed how the queer characters around Lois create safe spaces for her. Ryan uses that protective warmth to challenge Lois’s fear and isolationist tendencies—and to talk about the role that community plays in creating queer safety and our responsibility to one another. 

Quantum Girl Theory is set around 1950, but as I sit down to write this review, I’m thinking about the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs and the attack on District Dive bar in Orlando. There’s a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills making their way through conservative state legislatures right now, including Florida, where LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have issued travel warnings. 

Public space: this right here is my family

Lois frequents a lesbian bar in the “back barroom of the Annex.” The author doesn’t describe the bar, except to say that  “...half the girls were playing penny poker, and half the girls were pressed chest to chest on the dance floor.” 

There’s an open doorway between the bar and the barroom, and Ryan writes about people stepping or leaning through it, like a portal between out there and in here. One night, Raymond Schindler, the private detective hired to find Lois, steps in and addresses her, saying, “Ms. Paula Welden, your family’s mighty worried, young lady,” and then theatrically lights a cigarette.

“No last names,” someone hissed into her beer bottle.

Lois, in a bare-shouldered gown she’d rented from a woman on Perry Street, stepped away from her dance partner. (...)

“I think you must be mistaken, old man,” she said and lit a cigarette of her own from one of the poker players’ packs. She hadn’t smoked since high school. “This right here is my family.”

Schindler already broke the rule about last names, so what’s that line up to? It’s reminding the potential straight reader that his outing of Lois is layered. In that context, her bare shoulders could feel vulnerable, but her gown is so unapologetically out dancing that I read it as confidence—the cigarette might be high school swagger, but she’s holding her space. 

One of the poker players, an older Jewish woman in a full skirt and tight white blouse, cackled and drummed her short red nails on the table. “We sure are, mister,” the woman said.  “I’m Granny,” she gestured and said, “That’s my boy Junior” —pointing at a round, busty blonde in lace gloves— ”and that’s Uncle Sam,” nodding at the next poker player, a handsome Black person who leaned back in her chair, wearing pleated trousers, a heavy silver watch, and a crisp pink shirt unbuttoned to flash a white undershirt. 

How carefully Ryan metes out detail: The poker players’ clothes are more vivid than anything else in the room yet still spare—the point is that, here, they dress as themselves. It’s also a descriptive sleight of hand: we hardly notice that they have no faces or names.

The perspective here is close third, so maybe Lois doesn’t know these folks. But it seems more likely that she—or the author, whose generous, protective presence is often felt in this chapter—is withholding those details. No last names. Either way, the poker players humorously claim her in a way her family of origin has not. Yes, she’s one of us.

Private space: the shelter of a dressing gown

When she becomes Lois’s lover, we learn that the bosomy blonde is Ruth, a Jewish war orphan from Poland. It’s not long before Schindler is after her too. One night, Lois brings Ruth back to her boarding house, and they argue about fleeing New York and their community.

Ryan keeps Lois’s space impersonal: there’s a bed and a dresser drawer to tape money under. And with the nosey landlady hovering, it hardly feels safe. The women’s whispering and choreographed undressing makes the room feel very small, every movement, every word emotionally freighted. 

“Don’t say you won’t leave,” Lois whispered, desperation sounding like anger, fear tasting like pennies. “Don’t say it.” (...)

“I won’t disappear on them altogether,” Ruth whispered, her breath sour and smoky. She stood and undressed, dropping her stockings and skirt to the ground, pulling on Lois’s peacock-blue dressing gown, a gift from Ruth on her last birthday. Lois heard Ruth’s garters dangle against her thighs.

What I admire in this section is how Ryan employs taste—a callback to Lois’s past—as well as smell and sound to ground us in Lois’s experience. And the metaphor of the robe: Ruth is a territorial peacock, strewing her clothes about and flashing her colors. The juxtaposition:

Lois stood and undressed to her brassiere and slip. She folded her clothing with cruel little movements. “Even after you go on the lam for love of them, we’re to keep funding their revolution?” Lois felt mean and she felt implicated. Cold, too. She wished for her dressing gown back. 

Poor, tightly wound Lois—and yet, this is also funny. Between the clinically described undressing and the silent slamming of clothing, she’s a quiet tantrum. Mine, mine, mine. Yet even as Lois tries to retreat, Ruth closes the distance. 

Ruth stood and guided them to the bed, where she opened the dressing gown to drape them both inside. (...) Lois pressed her back into Ruth’s embrace. She closed her eyes to sketch out how Ruth’s shorter, chimney-stack body pressed to her, the firmness of her clavicles and sternum, the welcome humidity of her breasts, the purpled curves and divots worn into her skin from the stays and seams of her brassiere and girdle.

The open bathrobe is a chuppah, a roof over Ruth and Lois, a beginning. Or maybe that’s an over-reading of the moment and it’s enough to say that Ruth’s body is a home for Lois—complete with a chimney and the familiar comfort of her curves and divots.  

And yet, there is a commitment here: Ruth tells Lois that she can walk away from all these problems, and Lois answers, “Where you go, I go, sister.”   

Communal space: friendship as safe harbor

Lois and Ruth flee to a suburb of Baltimore and the home of M.J., one of Ruth’s wartime friends—who lives with her partner, Pinky, and her dear friend and husband, Gerald. 

As the fugitives wander through M.J.’s house, Ryan lavishes us with all the detail missing from earlier scenes: plush carpets, chrome furniture, the overwhelming smell of lilies and cigarettes, and a coffee table littered with “giddy” photos of Ruth in her WAC days. 

[Lois] helped herself to a seat on the stiff yellow brocade sofa and tucked her pocketbook beneath her knees. Pinky leaned to place a cool glass in Lois’s hand. “Welcome,” she said in a bed pillow voice.

It’s understandable that Lois, who has been running from family, greets the scene with mistrust. What’s wonderful is how, throughout this section, Ruth’s friends see Lois’s guarded selfishness and lean in—the cocktail is a tiny luxury, balm for a hard day, a welcome home.

But still, hiding is a hard habit to shake: In the morning, as she and Ruth make love in M.J.’s spare room, she pitches a plan to leave the country.

“And just forget all the people we’re a part of?” Ruth said.

“They’re yours. I’m not a part of them,” Lois said and tipped her head in the direction of the rest of the house. 

“You could be,” Ruth said. “Don’t you want to be?”

“I just want you,” Lois said, her mouth pressed to the moist underside of Ruth’s breast.

“I don’t want just you,” Ruth whispered...

“Not even sometimes?” Lois whispered back, and slid her right hand toward the heat and shadow between Ruth’s legs.

This is turnabout: Lois using intimacy to draw Ruth to her in the midst of an argument. And what feels generous about the writing here is that Ruth can both hold her ground and be vulnerable. It’s an important turning point—I don’t want just you—but it’s funny and sexy. Not even sometimes?

Later, Lois discovers that M.J. and her family have been selling off art in order to aid her escape with Ruth. They’re down to $40 and a carton of eggs—which they scramble for their guests.

Even with the tension and the looming getaway, the party ate merrily. Lois watched M.J. and Pinky tease Gerald, watched Ruth go pink at small jokes based on years of friendship, and rather than jealousy she felt something more like harbor. Like being offered shelter in another’s lap.

I keep coming back to this word: generosity. Even as Ryan heaps trouble on these characters, she also gives them an ideal community of friends and lovers. As Ruth says, isn’t this what we all want? People who really know us, who will hold us—with a warm bed, a convivial meal, a little ease—when things are hard.

Lois could see where the mirror must have been. An expanse of empty wall faced the dining table. Lois could imagine seeing her own reflection as she sat here, could imagine looking herself in the eye. Be better.

This is the narrative stretch that has kept the chapter binging around in my head all these months—Lois’ peering into friendship and sacrifice and asking herself to show up. It’s both deeply redemptive of the character and hopeful. Maybe impossible challenges are coming their way, but we can imagine Lois and Ruth are going to be okay. 

It’s practically a happy ending in a chapter, or a book really—for this is just one version of Paula Jean’s life—in which violence, intimidation, and bigotry are unbelievably good at tracking folks down. It comes late in the book, too, and I like to think that’s a small gift from the author. It’s as if Ryan is saying, okay, in the end, there is no such thing as safety, but if we’re lucky, if we find it, if we create and nurture it, we have our community—we have each other. 

Susan Pagani is a Minneapolis-based editor and writer. Her work has previously appeared in newspapers and magazines in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Berkeley. She is also the co-author of two books, Minnesota Lunch and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food. She holds an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Bennington College.