Written by Maggie Mitchell — The appetite for domestic noir seems insatiable, so it’s not surprising that this debut novel by American writer Maggie Mitchell has been marketed as perfect for fans of The Girl on the Train. There are some similarities, but to my mind this is a much more disquieting, creepy read. It is also a crime novel that will appeal to those who don’t normally read the genre. The author herself hits the nail on the head when she describes a book talked about in her novel as ‘a sort of chick-lit/thriller hybrid of the more literary variety’.
Two 12-year-old girls, previously unknown to each other, are kidnapped and held captive for two months in a remote cabin in the Adirondacks. The know their captor only as Zed and his motivation is unclear. The girls are not harmed physically, nor abused, but are too frightened to attempt to escape. Despite the differences in character, background and education, they form a deep bond with each other, and a strange bond with their kidnapper. As the police close in on their cabin, Zed shoots himself dead on the porch. There are no easy answers, no explanations which can satisfy the police, the girls themselves or us readers.
Fast forward 20 years. The girls have grown into independent women, trying to get on with their lives. Spelling bee champion Lois is now a college lecturer in English literature, while beauty pageant veteran Carly-May has changed her name to Chloe and moved to Hollywood. Her acting career has now stalled and she is known for bit parts where she is quickly killed. They have not been in touch since the kidnap summer, and their memories of events are hazy, strange and possibly unreliable.
Lois has published a modestly-selling thriller based on the abduction, albeit under a pseudonym. Now the book is to be made into a major motion picture and her carefully constructed life falls apart. One of her students is taking far too much interest in her personal life and the kidnapping. Could he possibly be Zed’s son, now all grown-up and trying to extract some bizarre revenge? Meanwhile, Chloe has been cast as the detective obsessed with the case in the movie adaptation. Both women are fearful yet eager to meet each other again. This finally does happen in the last quarter of the book when they head to Canada for filming. But their past catches up with them in an unexpected way there. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it is a bit too rushed for my taste. More interaction between these women as adults would have made Pretty Is more interesting.
The build-up of the story is written with confidence and a real sense of menace. The chapters switch rapidly and effortlessly between the two main protagonists. Part Two is made up entirely of an excerpt from the novel written by Lois. All of these different points of view and transitions are skillfully handled, with clear differences in style, so they do not make the book seem amateurish or choppy. For instance, Lois the professor uses poetic language and ironic references to classic literature. One of her favourite books is Pamela, the 18th century story of a virtuous girl being imprisoned and almost raped, which is also considered a love story. Meanwhile, Chloe the actress has an oral style much closer to commercial chick lit.
The book is particularly successful in describing the confused feelings the girls develop towards their kidnapper. The rivalry between girls of that age is superbly captured, as is the loneliness of their home life and their incipient sexuality. There are numerous literary references, although it’s not mandatory to spot them all to enjoy the story. I was particularly discomfited by the despair of a Lolita faced with an unwilling Humbert Humbert. There is real psychological darkness there which will make you squirm. It finally dawns on Lois and Chloe that they didn’t escape injury after all, that they emerged from their ordeal far from unscathed.
Pretty Is may not contain enough thrills and mystery to please die-hard crime fiction fans, and it does not go far enough in its metafictional experimentation to please the literary fiction crowd. It is undoubtedly a promising and original debut, and you have to admire the ease with which the author moves between genres and timeframes. Recommended also for fans of Elizabeth Haynes, Paula Daly and Rosamund Lupton.
For more psychological thrillers, click here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars