Exploring the effects of repression and denial, Harding's addictive thriller tells of a festering guilt. So far, the mystery is subordinate to the fear that gnaws away in Francis Metcalfe's stomach, a fear that is going to disentangle from the role of supportive mother to her ADHD child, Marcus, and to Jason, her husband. Though Francis can't rid herself of her past, she's confident that with Marcus starting at the Forrester Academy, one of greater Seattle's elite private schools, she will be start with a clean slate and embark on a new chapter in their family. Perhaps this will also be a chance for Francis to lose those extra twenty pounds.
But at a fancy-dress party held for the Forrester parents, Francis remains plagued by her familiar mid-level social anxiety. Francis is guarded in her daunting attempt to mingle with the parents. She tries not to listen to the snickers of the mothers around her. A recent incident involving Marcus has destroyed her reputation. She now faces yet another hint of derision and a touch of cruel curiosity. Feeling judged by these parents as a poor mother, Francis is completely vulnerable to assaults on her marriage. While the women are attracted to gregarious, attractive Jason, Francis continues to play second fiddle--quiet, dull and chubby, but with "a pretty face."
Harding paints a mesmerizing portrait of Francis, a woman torn asunder by what she has suffered and with no energy left even to hope for salvation. That is, until she meets glamorous Kate. The two bond over a shared sense of humor and a disdain for the Forrester's "snobby clique." With the statuesque, self-assured Kate in her corner, Francis begins to feel more confident and less vulnerable. Kate can have anyone, be "part of the mommy in-crowd." While Frances is desperate, obsequious and ingratiating, Kate is cool, aloof, distant. The attractive blond barely hits Francis's radar amid the gaggle of Forester mothers. Kate earns Francis's devotion even though Kate exhibits a strange detachment over her past. Francis has grown to need Kate in this friendship that has made Francis "more confident less anxious and slimmer."
In Seattle, the air is full of chill, suspicion and gossip. There's no cat-and-mouse game, no taunts from a genius criminal. Her Pretty Face is instead an internal drama about the transfixing dynamic between Kate and Francis. Kate's daughter, 13-year-old Daisy, is attempting to stake her own claim. She's tired of being subjected to Kate's disinterest. The apathy of Robert, Daisy's father, is less noticeable. Robert loves both his children, but his love is reserved and distracted. Daisy still doesn't know what has precipitated their relocation every two to five years.
For Daisy, everything in their upscale Belleview suburb feels clammy. After Daisy is accused of doing weird stuff--"porn stuff"--out of the blue, she meets "adult stranger." Rugged David's invitation dangles before her like forbidden fruit. In his mid-twenties, with messy dark hair, light brown eyes, and warm skin, David drives Daisy precariously close to giggles. Daisy is thankful the snickering has diminished, together with the cruel comments and scandalized whispers. Her mind now swirls with thoughts of estranged relatives, her mother's past and her upcoming date with this enigmatic stranger who has unceremoniously walked into her life.
Harding tells her story in flashbacks; from a boy called DJ, who laments the death his sister, to Francis's suffocating dreams and the shards of repressed memories that can pierce the thickest hangover. Is David a pervert, a pedophile, a human trafficker? Is Francis a pawn of a manipulative woman, a "sociopathic bitch" who has taken part in the murder of young girl and accepted no responsibility for it? Harding's faintly hallucinatory scenes intertwine with Francis's efforts to protect Daisy and to build a complete picture of Kate. It's not like Kate has a dark past and a shameful secret. It is Francis who knows the toll of living with guilt, as well as the self-loathing and constant nagging fear of being found out. Francis fumbles for lucidity, taunted by her inner voice--parenting Marcus, looking after Jason and managing the household. She thinks on all of Kate's compliments, all the support and commiseration. Is Francis just a pet to be "dashed against the pavement" when Kate grows tired of her?
A meticulously constructed dollhouse, Harding's novel takes a sharp turn that culminates in Kate and Francis's crumbling gratitude. We read, unable to look away, as Francis sinks deeper into Kate's history. Later in the novel, the idea of motherhood comes to life as Francis's loyalties to her friend are writ large in brightly colored flesh and blood. In truth, Kate's life is nothing but memory. The past is written on her skin.