Wendy White’s body was found in a ditch five months after she disappeared — but no one wants to talk to Stacy Flynn, the reporter, about it. Must have been a drifter, they say. Not someone from Haeden, not someone from around here. But fifteen-year-old Alice Piper, genius daughter of eccentric hippies Gene and Claire, has been observing as much as Stacy has. Her observations — her ethics, her passion — may cause a second crime, or bring justice, or both.
I admit that I was already slightly prejudiced against this book when I began it. I agree with Jenny that I have probably had my lifetime supply of narratives about abducted, raped, tortured, and murdered white girls, and since the blurb on the back of the book reveals that that’s what So Much Pretty will be handing me, I was resistant. (I am also nearing my limit on super-special-snowflake-misunderstood-genius white girls, but am willing to see what authors do with those, to a certain extent. More on that later.)
The author, Cara Hoffman, did not win me over with her prose. (That’s what’s known as “understatement.”) It’s hard to convey the overwhelming banality of it, when she’s capable of writing sentences like “At the time I didn’t like it, the gentrification, but a few weeks after moving to Haeden, I longed for the life of my old neighborhood badly, especially the sounds; traffic, parties, kids on the street. The utter silence of my new home woke me up at night.” Or this: “Not too many people moved to Haeden, and it was obvious that the Pipers’ newness would be new for as long as they lived there. Despite what Constant had told them about friendly small-town life, people did not warm up quickly to ‘outsiders.'”
Worse still was my sense that Hoffman didn’t understand that every single one of her characters was a horrifyingly smug, self-righteous, amoral jerk. Unlike in Gone Girl, in which we are presented with two violent, vivid psychopathic characters and gradually get to know them with a degree of understanding and even pity, Hoffman’s characters are so revoltingly self-satisfied that I wouldn’t want to pity them with a barge-pole. Here, for instance, is one example of a monologue from Claire, a character with whom I think we are meant to sympathize: she’s a women’s health advocate with an MD who has moved from New York to a small rural town because this alternative lifestyle is healthier for her and her family.
“I mean, this is what it is: The other day a woman wanted to talk to me about driving kids around, you know, what kind of car she had, something about shopping somewhere in a store in the mall. Like for twenty fucking minutes. Almost half an hour of saying a thing and then another thing. It’s not like that’s horrible on its own, it’s just that there is nothing else. You could have five or six conversations like that back to back. Every day…. A person comes up and just describes the things that are around in the lightest possible way, states various observable facts. The whole social context is missing. I hate to say this, ’cause it’s my fault for not staying more mentally active on my own, but I haven’t laughed out loud — you know, just felt myself laugh really hard — in a long time.”
Claire, you’re an elitist, classist robot with no sense that people are reaching out to you with small talk in order to get to know you. And all the “sympathetic” characters are like this! It’s not just implied that education and intellect put you at personal risk in a rural community, it’s flat-out stated. This is incredibly repellent, and it’s just as true of the misunderstood-genius Alice as it is of any of the adults. The rural characters, naturally, are no better: sexist, racist, ignorant, and proud of a “heritage” they manifestly have no right to be proud of.
Then there’s the plot. Geez. There are so many things wrong with this plot, so many missteps and loopholes, so much heavy-handed symbolism (butterflies! paving stones! trapezes!), so many awkward joins between material that doesn’t belong together, that I don’t know where to begin, or even if I should. I could do an Amateur Reader-style serialization on Where This Book Went Wrong. Instead, I’ll just point out that when you leave your main character standing, Wile E. Coyote-style, in thin air with regard to moral justification when she commits a horrifying act, your readers are unlikely to care about her. I certainly didn’t. Nor did I care how much of a misunderstood genius she was. At this point, I just wanted the book to be over. (Don’t get me started on the epilogue, which was The Very Last Straw of All the Straws.)
This novel deals with violence against women, which is a topic that is very important to me — a topic that deserves serious attention. But this book is a hot mess, throwing statistics around (none of which are supported by references, incidentally) and retelling tired tales. We can justify action better than this.