Wednesday, March 16, 2011
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman
So Much Pretty is a haunting, gloomy novel that defies genre — it is one part crime thriller, one part ambitious novel, one part prose poem. Hoffman's debut tells the tale of a series of horrific events that take place in Haeden, a small town in upstate New York, drawing on multiple perspectives to glimpse all sides of the same story. Two girls go missing in Haeden — first, waitress Wendy White. Recent-transplant journalist Stacy Flynn — who wants to get a big scoop and get out of town — decides to cover the White case with a controversial angle, using the girl's murder as a chance to ask big questions about assault, women, blame and deceit in a small town. Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper, a local brainiac and the daughter of Gene and Claire (who narrate much of the novel), reads Flynn's story and decides to do some probing of her own into the White case, connecting several dots and nearly discovering the killer — until she too goes missing. So Much Pretty raises questions about denial, violence against women and when a citizen should speak up, even if it puts another at risk.
I am not the kind of reader that goes in for gimmicks or noticeable literary devices — I also don't tend to read anything that could find its way into the "thriller" section of the bookstore. I should have picked up So Much Pretty and put it right back down again. But I didn't! I stayed up all night reading it, and then the next day, I found myself so sucked into Hoffman's world that I forgot to eat lunch. Sleep and nourishment aside, I don't regret taking a chance on it — I am already anticipating Hoffman's next book so I can do it all over again. Criticisms first: Hoffman does employ a kind of debut novelist's gimmick here. She writes each chapter from a different point of view, giving the book a "Greek chorus" feel (another sign of a first writer: She uses invented court documents and letters to fill in plot holes in her characters' knowledge) — but I didn't mind it after a while and found myself happy to hear several voices take on what in the voice of only one observer may have felt like an insurmountable tragedy. So Much Pretty is certainly a thriller (it made me double check my door locks), but it is more challenging than that would imply; Hoffman uses terrifying events to scratch at some darker issues beneath the surface, and like any promising novelist, she does so with more showing than telling. She points out the ways in which small-town communities rally around their own after a crime, and often let the truth (and in this case, women's rights) fall to the wayside. As the young Alice writes in a letter before her disappearance, "I think I have fallen through the hole in all the logic in the entire world and I can see now that nothing holds up and I am going to keep falling." This is, in essence, what reading So Much Pretty feels like.
- Rachel Syme, books editor, NPR