Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is a psychological thriller that follows two girls that were kidnapped as kids, whose lives intertwine once again, almost twenty years later, when a movie with a shockingly familiar plot forces them to confront their past (On sale today!).

I do so love a good literary mystery, especially when it explores the aspects of a crime that so often go unexamined. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is looks at two women whose lives become inextricably bound when, at the age of 12, they are taken from their small towns in Nebraska and Connecticut by a charismatic stranger known to them only as Zed. For two months, they live in nearly idyllic isolation in the woods, until their recovery and a violent death send them back to their families. The girls’ parents decide that it’s best that they have no contact in the aftermath, despite how the girls themselves feel. Deprived of each other and Zed, the girls struggle to make sense of their lives.

Over the next two decades, beauty queen Carly May changes her name to Chloe and tries her best to erase her small-town past as she attempts to make it in Hollywood. Meanwhile, across the country, spelling bee champion Lois becomes a professor of 18th-century English literature and publishes a thinly veiled fictionalization of the kidnapping under a pseudonym. When Lois’s book is turned into a movie that Chloe is cast in, the women are finally pulled together again.

Ms. Mitchell does a fantastic job of exploring the interior conflicts of these two very different women. Pretty Is is an exceptionally realistic portrayal of a shared experience that changed the lives of two prepubescent girls, though not in the ways others might expect. The girls and Zed had a very complicated relationship with one another that defied the typical kidnapping experience, so much so that everyone still wonders, years later, what the point of it all was. Where Lois tries to find meaning by exploring the incident and its aftermath through her fiction, Chloe is more down to earth about it, using the emotions of their experience to fuel her own art. She puts a seal on it (insofar as she can) thusly:

But in real life, obviously, the motive has to come first. The default story is no story at all, right? Most people don’t go crazy, or not that kind of crazy, and therefore don’t commit some sort of horrible crime—so there is no story, and we never hear of them. They just work and maybe have a family and play golf or something, and then they die. Most people’s lives aren’t stories. This should have been obvious to me before now, but in my current state of mind, it hits me pretty hard. My life became a story not because I did anything very interesting but because a crime was committed against me. Anything I do—everything I will ever do—refers back to that event, somehow. It’s my story. I can’t get away from it.

Chloe is also the narrator with the most to say about the practical challenges of being a modern-day woman. Having spent her entire life calculatingly trading on her appearance in order to attain her goals (and I do not say that at all pejoratively), she has an excellent grasp on the motivations of herself and of other women and how to navigate society accordingly, as is shone in this passage on personal accessibility and how it relates to dining alone:

I know women who would never go to a bar alone, who hate to eat alone, would rather starve. They feel conspicuous or vulnerable or bored or unloved or just embarrassed. I’ve never minded, because I figured out pretty early on that I could control the impression I made, which in turn controls how people respond to me. If you want, you can close off your face and put on a look that says “don’t fuck with me if you value your life,” though you have to take it down a little notch for bartenders and waitresses and such. And then you can just eat or drink in peace. At the other extreme you can easily convey the message that you’re hoping for company. Keep an empty chair next to you, look around, meet people’s eyes, smile if they look back.

In all honesty, I preferred the Chloe portions of the book to the Lois parts. I found Chloe’s narrative voice more bracing and her stoicism and acceptance of what happened more palatable than Lois’s anxiety and unhealthy relationship with gathering material for her fictive explorations of Zed’s life and legacy. But, watchful, complicated Lois is a vital part of the book, who brings about some of the most suspenseful scenes in Pretty Is. The women’s friendship is the highlight of this psychologically complex, bittersweet novel that is as much about senseless crime as it is about the violent impact of separation on a lasting female bond.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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