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Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, this daringly imagined, atmospheric, and original debut is part coming-of-age story and part supernatural tale about teenage girls learning their own strength.

Daringly imagined, atmospheric, and original, Wild Girls is an exhilarating debut—part coming-of-age story and part supernatural tale about girls learning their own strength.

Kate Riordan fears two things as she grows up in the small Appalachian town of Swan River: that she’ll be a frustrated townie forever or that she’ll turn into one of the mysterious and terrifying wild girls, killers who start fires and menace the community. Struggling to better her chances of escaping, Kate attends the posh Swan River Academy and finds herself divided between her hometown—and its dark history—and the realm of privilege and achievement at the Academy. Explosive friendships with Mason, a boy from the wrong side of town, and Willow, a wealthy and popular queen bee from school, are slowly pulling her apart. Kate must decide who she is and where she belongs before she wakes up with cinders at her fingertips.

Mary Stewart Atwell has written a novel that is at once funny and wise and stunningly inventive. Her wild girls are strange and fascinating creatures—a brilliant twist on the anger teenage girls can feel at their powerlessness—and a promise of the great things to come from this young writer.

This reading group guide for Wild Girls includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Kate Riordan’s hometown of Swan River is a mysterious place, plagued by a history of murderous young women that the locals call “wild girls.” Officials have been excusing their dangerous behavior for centuries, but rumors swirled about ordinary teenage girls suddenly able to fly or throw flames from their fingertips. Having grown up with these stories, Kate just wants to make it through boarding school without being turned into a wild girl so that she can escape to a picturesque college campus up north.
Kate isn’t exactly the kind of student Swan River Academy usually gets. She can only afford it because her mother is the school secretary, while most of the other girls are from posh towns and established families. Divided between two very different worlds, Kate becomes tangled up in two unusual and unstable friendships that will bring those worlds together and change hers irrevocably.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Kate’s friendship with Willow goes through many ups and downs. Why is it so difficult for Kate to give up on Willow even after being disappointed and let down by her? Why is she unable to just walk away whenever Willow comes asking for her help again?
2. Throughout the novel, Kate wonders what causes someone to become a wild girl. What are your hypotheses? Why do you think Maggie and Willow in particular became wild girls? Would Willow have become one even without Dr. Bell’s influences?
3. Reread Mrs. Lemmons predictions for Kate and Willow on pages 27-28 and discuss them in light of the novel’s ending. Do you agree with Dr. Bell that Mrs. Lemmons was a fraud, or do you think she was actually able to see the future for Kate and Willow?
4. While the town of Swan River is vividly described, it’s never explicitly stated where or when the narrative takes place. What are some of the clues as to where Swan River is or in what year the book is set? What effect did not knowing these specifics have on your reading experience?
5. Several characters seem to be obsessed in one way or another with the wild girls. What motivates each of their obsessions?
6. Compare Kate’s relationship with Willow to her relationship with Mason. How are they similar? What attracts her to each of them?
7. There are many depictions of poor parenting in the novel—from overly controlling to completely uninvolved. Discuss the different parent characters and how their methods affect their children.
8. Discuss Kate’s recurring dream about the bottom of the river. What do you think it means?
9. The male characters in the book aren’t always what they appear. Kate recognizes that maybe she misjudged Kevin, a.k.a. Kayak Boy, and didn’t give him the credit he deserves. Discuss the other male characters, including Travis, Dr. Bell, Malcolm, and Clancy. In what ways do they turn out differently than you may have anticipated?
10. On page 285, Frances imagines what Willow’s life would be like if she had lived. What do you think would have become of Willow?
11. When asked about what she would do if she thought someone was becoming a wild girl, Maggie’s advice to Kate was, “…I would tell her to add up everything that matters to her—the people she loves, her hopes for the future. Put that on one side of the scale, and on the other, put the satisfaction of destroying what you hate.” What do you think it was that Willow wanted to destroy? What kept her from destroying all of Swan River?
12. After everything she’s witnessed, Kate tells Clancy that she “wouldn’t know how to love anybody right now” (p. 280). Do you think that’s true, or does she just not love Clancy? Seeing how the rest of her life turns out, do you think she will ever learn how to love somebody?
13. Does Kate really does have a wild girl inside her that she keeps at bay by choosing to do good? In some sense, don’t we all?

Enhance Your Book Club

Kate grew up hearing about the murders and mysteries surrounding the wild girls of Swan River. Has there been any local lore passed down in your hometown? If you don’t know of any town secrets off hand, do a little research online and see if you can dig anything up to share with the group.   
Embrace the supernatural—get out the old Ouija board and see if anything is stirring.   
Mason tells Kate, “You want to help somebody, help your own people first.” (p. 105) Take his advice and find a local organization for you and your reading group to volunteer at after your next meeting.
Photograph © Charlie Cline

Mary Stewart Atwell's short fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices and Best American Mystery Stories. She grew up in southwest Virginia and now lives in Missouri.

“Fire-lit from start to finish, Wild Girls is a story of Appalachian magic, conflagration, and supernatural violence; it is also a quiet and keenly perceptive account of the close ties (and the noose knots) that bind adolescent female friendships. Atwell has written a fantastic hybrid, part horror story and part bildungsroman: an elegy to the midnight selves that girls try to destroy, overcome, ‘outgrow’ on the way to adulthood, and a testament to their uncanny resilience.” —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

"Wild Girls lives up to its name. This beautifully written novel alternates lyrical passages with sharp eruptions of emotional fervor, with surprises on every page. The characters and the relationship between them are drawn with compassion and an utter lack of sentimentality. Wild Girls is an impressive debut from a writer we’ll be anxious to hear more from." —Alice LaPlante, author of Turn of Mind

"If Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides were somehow miraculously to be gene-spliced with one of Joyce Carol Oates' baroque backwoods concoctions, you might end up with something very much like WILD GIRLS: sensual, frightening, written in lines of diamond-hard prose. One could not ask for a more exciting first novel." — Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories

Wild Girls is a thrilling and dangerous trek through the haunted wilderness of adolescence. You will lose yourself in the mist of Atwell’s implacable Appalachian landscape, in the mystical years of girlhood, in the mythology of violence, and you will find yourself in every character, in every stunning revelation. I simply loved this book.”

—Alison Espach, the author of The Adults

“First—time novelist Atwell deftly mixes things up. Kate is a mature narrator whose sense of fairness and responsibility holds at bay the usual tensions over cliques, bullying, and competitive nastiness until an explosive episode of demonic possession targets the whole town.”

– Library Journal

“Atwell has imbued Wild Girls with wit, humor and sometimes startling atmosphere. She makes Kate sympathetic and the tensions in her life believable.”

– St. Louis Post Dispatch

"A chilling tale of high school girls gone wild, capturing the terrors of both adolescence and dark magic in one sweeping story.”

– Shelf Awareness

Wild Girls successfully creates a sinister atmosphere for this engaging tale of a young girl facing her fears and her future.”

– West End Word

"Atwell uses witchcraft, legend, herbal lore, and just enough factual evidence to keep the reader—and Kate—guessing about the mysterious series of events that unfold."

– Fiction Writers Review