Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Author: Maggie Mitchell
Title: Pretty Is
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 7 July 2015
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction + dash of thriller
Why I Read: Pretty cover, gripping premise
Read If You’re: Intrigued by the copy description
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is beautifully defies ripped-from-the-headlines crime story expectations and announces the debut of a masterful new storytelling talent.

I can’t remember how this book came on my radar, but it was some months ago. Every now and then I check NetGalley to see if books on my ‘upcoming publication’ shelf are available. I was very excited when this one finally showed up!

I like many aspects of this novel. I like the prose and the style of narrative. Mitchell writes with a strong voice and her prose injects the story with tension. The first page hooked me. The alternating perspectives of Lois and Carly May balance each other well. I like how it’s a story about stories within stories and about blurring the line between fiction, non-fiction and our own personal lives. I also enjoyed the plot. After Lois is reunited with her parents:

 They could not sit on the couch because Carly was sprawled out beside me; instead, awkwardly, they reached their thin, tanned arms out to me, inviting me to stand and be embraced. Which I did, automatically; but I found no comfort. Their arms felt insubstantial, their eyes held too many questions I knew they’d never be able to ask, their fear was wordless and stiff. (18%)

The plot developed in a direction I wasn’t at all anticipating. When I read the blurb – “a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more” – I assumed that the story of their kidnapping was widely known, that someone decided to profit off their story without their involvement, and they reconnect through some sort of entanglement with that. I found the actual plot more intriguing and creative than that. I liked that the book description didn’t give it away. I don’t like descriptions that describe a major plot point that doesn’t happen until 100+ pages in the novel. Pretty Is‘s major premise is established 6% in, but I still appreciated that it came as a surprise. The plot is built on some pretty outrageous coincidences that you know would never happen in real life, but well-written fiction like this allows makes it believable. I’d say this novel is plot driven, but the characters are central to the plot’s success – does the plot make the characters or do the characters make the plot?

Please note: This paragraph contains minor spoilers! Read at your own risk.  I noticed two points made by other reviewers that I disagree with. One is that Lois’ behavior seems unnatural or out of character. Lois’ sanity is called into question by at least herself, Carly May and Sean. (Quote from Carly May: “Only one of us can be batshit crazy, I tell myself. I have a sneaking sort of feeling that Lois – rational, orderly Lois – might have claimed that role” [83%]). I didn’t question it while reading – in fact, I wondered why everyone was thinking she was crazy. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I take everything they say at face value. When Lois was speaking, I though, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but in retrospect, how she deals with her creepy stalker is definitely not right. I don’t think this is poor writing – having Lois, an otherwise solid woman, acting ‘out of character’ with her stalker. I think it shows that she is a little bit off and shows how the kidnapping affected her. The second point is that the conclusion is abrupt and/or unsatisfying. I dislike such conclusions, but I found Pretty Is‘s conclusion to be neither of those things. I had all the answers I wanted, and I was satisfied with where the characters ended up.There is a spike in the ‘thrills’, but I was totally absorbed and carried along all the ups and downs it brought.

In genre above, I labeled this book ‘literary fiction + dash of thriller’. Another person might label it ‘chick lit thriller’ or ‘contemporary’. What genre is this book?! Who decides genres, anyhow? Are they useful to anyone beyond the person doing the labelling? I’ve learned over the past years the stories I love the most can be found in the general fiction of a bookstore or library, even though they often have strong touches of fantasy or terror. For me, Pretty Is feels ‘literary’ with a hint of thriller – just a hint; I wouldn’t call it ‘a thriller’, it’s just the nature of part of the plot. Then again, maybe it’s because I was so focused on the ‘literary fiction’ parts of the book that I can’t accept it’s more of a thriller, like how I can’t imagine Paper Towns as a ‘mystery’. I’m sure there are people who would laugh at me calling this book ‘literary’. Maybe it’s just contemporary fiction? What’s the difference between the two, anyhow? (Says the English major…) I do use the two labels separately here on my blog, but they really just follow my own impression of the book… I don’t know what the actual definitions or differences between the two terms are. Conclusion: Labels can be as tricky as ratings when describing books!

The Bottom Line: If the plot intrigues you at all, give it a go. Much better than the few other after kidnapping stories I’ve read, this would be a great read to curl up with during an evening at the cottage.

Further Reading: