Published by: Scribner
Published on: October 16, 2012
Page Count: 288
My Reading Format: Review copy sent to me by the publisher for consideration.
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Kate Riordan may be a townie, but she’s not just from anywhere. Swan River is a small Appalachian town with an upscale women’s only prep school called the Swan River Academy, which began it’s existence as a finishing school for girls from wealthy Southern families. Swan River also has a disturbing history of having local “wild girls” who go on violent, fire-filled, and often murderously destructive rampages between the ages of 16 and 18. The newspapers, the local authorities, and the Swan River Academy downplay these events, but there are any number of stories and theories as to what happens when these girls are set off. None of this alleviates Kate’s fear that she will become one of them. With that possibility hanging over her head, Kate’s years at the Swan River Academy and all of the social upheaval that comes part and parcel with high school are that much more difficult to navigate.
In Wild Girls, Mary Stewart Atwell has created a Gothic, backwoods atmosphere that is authentically Southern. While I didn’t quite hear the banjos playing in the background, I could sense they weren’t far off. Swan River, a town without any real economic stimulation, is dying and the pain Kate experiences every time she sees the dilapidated buildings is palpable. Her need to escape the prison sentence of spending her life in Swan River is just as real as the Wild Girls curse she feels hanging over her head. This doesn’t stop her from getting caught up in circumstances and making choices similar to the ones she criticizes her older sister for making.
What worked well for me was the balance between the reality of life in Swan River and the paranormal terror of the Wild Girls. The concept of grabbed my attention from the beginning. You have young woman with pent up sexual energy and few prospects for much of anything in a dying town. It’s the perfect recipe. It’s more than just the right time and the right hormonal level. Despite how downplayed the Wild Girls have been, there are those who look to things unique to Swan River to cause this phenomenon. Some look to the influence and lifestyle of a hippy style commune led by a purported witch. There is an alchemy of sorts to this way of thinking about the Wild Girls phenomenon that peaked my interest.
Wild Girls found its way on my radar via the most recent issue of the Hollins University alumni magazine. From the moment I read the article about Mary Stewart Atwell, I knew this was a novel I had to read. I am happy about the Hollins connection, but it was the boarding school theme that made me urgently seek it out. I very much related to Kate throughout the novel. Her desire to fit in versus staying true to dependable if not boring friends brought me back in time. The behavior of the girls was reminiscent of Heathers, but the atmosphere added just the right touch to keep the story fresh. While the novel may have benefited from a stronger focus on the occult, I enjoyed every minute reading it. So, be sure to read your alumni magazines. You don’t want to miss any of the bookish potential you might find inside.