Pretty Is

By Maggie Mitchell

Henry Holt & Co. | 2015 | 306 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

maggie mitchell

. . . As Pretty Does?

Maggie Mitchell has chosen an idiosyncratic slant on this too-common tale of abduction.  Two twelve year-old girls blithely go off with the man in the car, despite knowing better, offering themselves up as easy prey, figuring anything’s better than spending another day on the Nebraska plains or holed up in Connecticut.  The Nebraskan, the Pretty One (who’s also smart) has an evil stepmother who escorts her around to beauty pageants; the Smart One (who’s also pretty) wins prizes at spelling bees, which she loves, but feels ignored by her parents who are too busy serving stuffed French toast to the patrons of their bed and breakfast to spend time with her. The girls feel chosen by this handsome enigmatic man and compete with each other for his attentions.  What his intentions are remains unclear. From the beginning we know that the girls are rescued after a few months and appear to be unharmed.

But the kidnapping is only one layer of the novel.  Eighteen years after the kidnapping, the Smart One is an English professor and a novelist and her first book, Deep in the Woods, is about to be made into a movie.  The Pretty One, a mildly successful actress is going to be in the movie, playing a fictional character, and for the first time since the kidnapping, the women will get to meet.

Peel back another layer: the Smart One is writing a sequel, an unhinged student knows her secrets and is stalking her. Will the girls be victimized again?

I’m sorry to confess that I’m not sure what would have motivated me to keep turning pages, other than my commitment to reviewing this book. Make no mistake: Pretty is is skillfully written. Mitchell generates a fair amount of suspense by having us follow the increasingly ill-advised movements of the Smart One. (“No,” you mouth, “do not go to that disreputable area of town, at night, where no one can hear your screams, to rendezvous with your unbalanced student!”)

But the book leaves you with too many unanswered questions.

The girls are never physically harmed in any way, aside from the initial act of abduction with which they seem all too happy to comply. Yet they live in an atmosphere of foreboding; they observe the gradual unravelling of their captor. They puzzle over his motives (as do I). He wants to protect them from our degenerate society of beauty pageants and spelling bees? What about the son he left behind? We are given no insight into his actions, no glimpse of his history, no street psychology interpretation. He encourages the girls to pursue old fashioned wholesome pastimes —acting, reading mysteries, stargazing, running through the woods at night, swimming in the lake at night.  He observes them always, and yes, that’s creepy at times, but he’s not interested in sexual contact, and rebuffs their mistaken advances.  He’s a certified mystery. We expect all along to learn more about him but we never do. Loose end. We never get a very clear picture of where the girls are being kept or how they are discovered. Another loose end.

I found the plot to be needlessly complicated. The use of multiple aliases (Carly May, Chloe, Callie, Lois, Hannah, Mandy) for the girls is downright mistifying and the characters themselves are confused by what to call themselves. Then there’s the fictional book of the abduction, the even more fictional sequel which is in the works, and the character of the present day wannabe abductor, Sean, for whom I could discover no motivation at all. Another character, Brad, is a platonic friend of the Smart One who patently would like to take the relationship in a different direction, but he’s just left by the wayside. Another loose end. And though each girl is given her own voice in alternate chapters, I couldn’t find much to differentiate them.

What about larger themes you ask. Here Mitchell shows us quite clearly that identity can be shaped as much by what doesn’t happen as by what does. These two girls sustain a trauma unseen by others.  As young women, they are only beginning to exorcize their demons. On some level they are still waiting for their abductor to return and explain himself and for him to favor them again.  The Smart One turns to writing as her outlet of choice, but the message is clear. Writing is hard and full of pitfalls: you too could devolve into a typing machine and neglect to wash your hair or clean up your martini glasses, and wind up not knowing what is true and what is made up! For most (mostly sane) writers, the imaginary worlds of their own creation are, many times, more alluring than the cold reality of their days grading papers, doing temp work, toiling at the factory or doing whatever puts food on the table.

Pretty is is, despite my carping, a well-put-together book, a quick read, perhaps a perfect beach book. Though if the scenario of forceful abduction appeals to you, take a look at Emma Donoghue’s The Room, a serious fictional study of what it means to survive kidnapping and years of sequestration.  Ultimately, the two girls in Pretty Is, and the women they become, just struck me as silly.

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