The best books about women trying to survive cults

Who am I?

Increasingly, the fiction I’m most drawn to occupies the space between literary and speculative. This space fascinates me both as a reader and a writer. I love stories set in worlds shifted ever-so-slightly from the familiar, where characters are forced to navigate new ways of existing or find ways to escape. Perhaps that’s why so many of my favorite stories—and my first two novels!—tend to feature women in cults or other cloistered communities, caught between their desire for belonging and the potential annihilation of the self. Where do you excavate for happiness in a hostile world? My characters spend their lives trying to answer this question. 


I wrote...

Disaster's Children

By Emma Sloley,

Book cover of Disaster's Children

What is my book about?

Disaster’s Children tells the story of Marlo, raised in a privileged community of wealthy survivalists on an idyllic, self-sustaining Oregon ranch. The outside world, which the ranchers call "the Disaster," is a casualty of ravaging climate change, a troubled landscape on the brink of catastrophe. For as long as Marlo can remember, the unknown that lies beyond the borders of her utopia has been a curious obsession. But just as she plans her escape into the chaos of the real world, a charismatic new resident gives her a compelling reason to stay. And, soon enough, a reason to doubt--and to fear--his intentions. Now, feeling more and more trapped in a paradise that's become a prison, Marlo has a choice: stay in the only home she's ever known—or break away.

The books I picked & why

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The Girls

By Emma Cline,

Book cover of The Girls

Why this book?

The world might obsess over the charismatic men behind horrific famous killings like those of the Manson family, but Emma Cline is far more interested in the girls lurking in the shadows of those sinister figures. Their longings, the way they move through the world, their own capacity for depravity. Cline’s lonely protagonist Evie is drawn into the orbit of a group of beautiful, careless girls in thrall to a cult leader whose violent vision will drive them all toward a night of unspeakable violence. Through Evie’s intense adolescent gaze, we’re inexorably driven along too. This book was one of those lightning-bolt reading experiences for me: it changed the way I thought about language and creating a vivid, indelible sense of place—in this case, the frantic, dreamy savagery of 1960s California. 

The Girls

By Emma Cline,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping and dark fictionalised account of life inside the Manson family from one of the most exciting young voices in fiction.

If you're lost, they'll find you...

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed.

It's the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewelry catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where…


Women Talking

By Miriam Toews,

Book cover of Women Talking

Why this book?

There is subtle genius in the way Miriam Toews pays such close attention to the humanity of her often heartbreaking characters while also being dryly funny. Set in a closed, conservative Mennonite community, the story unfolds as “minutes” taken by a young man as he listens to a group of women from the community who have discovered they were drugged and assaulted while sleeping, by men they know. (Their fathers, sons, husbands, and friends.) The story is based on a real case, and while the details are chillingly horrific, Toews finds a way for the characters to talk about these things that are warm, humorous, and compassionate, as the women become alive for the first time to their own unexamined power. 

Women Talking

By Miriam Toews,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women Talking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Incendiaries

By R.O. Kwon,

Book cover of The Incendiaries

Why this book?

Told with lyrical, freewheeling assurance, this campus novel-meets-love story-meets meditation on fanaticism is a short, sharp read that tells the story of Phoebe and Will, whose lives collide and then break apart when Phoebe joins a secretive cult bent on enacting faith-based violence. We spend most of the time in Will’s head, as he carefully recreates the tragic timeline to try to understand Phoebe’s heart and grapple with the long legacy of loss. 

The Incendiaries

By R.O. Kwon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Incendiaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'R. O. Kwon is the real deal' LAUREN GROFF

'Absolutely electric . . . Everyone should read this book' GARTH GREENWELL

'Every explosive requires a fuse. That's R. O. Kwon's novel, a straight, slow-burning fuse' VIET THANH NGUYEN

'In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable' CELESTE NG

'A sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye' WASHINGTON POST

'Raw and finely wrought' NEW YORK TIMES

'The Incendiaries packs a disruptive charge, and introduces R. O. Kwon as a major talent'…

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett,

Book cover of State of Wonder

Why this book?

A kind of woman-driven answer to Heart of Darkness cast in modern-day Brazil, this dark and thought-provoking story had me enthralled from the first page. A pharmaceutical researcher, Dr. Marina Singh, journeys into the Amazon on a quest to find her vanished colleague, and on reaching a remote jungle village whose residents harbor a potentially world-transforming secret, she’s forced to reckon with questions of morality, fertility, and her own complicated past. I loved the dreamy, almost hallucinogenic setting and the imaginative premise, all contained within Patchett’s trademark lyrical yet straightforward prose style. 

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked State of Wonder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION There were people on the banks of the river. Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson's work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders' colleague and once a student of…

The Year of the Flood

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of The Year of the Flood

Why this book?

The second installment in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, following the dystopian blockbuster Oryx and Crake, proved to be my favorite. Perhaps that’s because the story largely follows the travails of Toby, a fascinating, multi-faceted woman who’s holed up in an erstwhile luxury spa at the end of the world, musing on her recent past as a member of the hippie religious cult God’s Gardeners. Toby is a brilliant and wry guide through this thoroughly immersive ruined world, and Atwood keeps readers on the edge of their seats as we wait to find out what’s left to salvage for the survivors of the waterless flood. 

The Year of the Flood

By Margaret Atwood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Year of the Flood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cults, Mennonites, and medicine?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cults, Mennonites, and medicine.

Cults Explore 28 books about cults
Mennonites Explore 10 books about Mennonites
Medicine Explore 59 books about medicine

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Lands of Lost Borders, Maiden Voyage, and West with the Night if you like this list.