Pretty Is
Maggie Mitchell
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Buy *Pretty Is* by Maggie Mitchellonline

Pretty Is
Maggie Mitchell
Henry Holt
320 pages
July 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A novel of many voices, Pretty Is spins a tale of beauty, abduction, and how two girls--Lois and Chloe--are not-so-good. An assistant professor of literature at a prestigious college, Lois lives in New England and has recently written a modest-selling psycho thriller under the pseudonym Lucy Ledger. Called Deep in the Woods, the novel is soon to be made into a major motion picture and is loosely based on the abduction of her and another girl called Carly May when they were both twelve. Carly May was once a child model who competed in Nebraska beauty pageants and has now become Chloe Savage, a second-tier, “not quite famous” actress living in Los Angeles. Chloe has remade herself as a “sexy little fairy.” Until recently, no one remembered Chloe and Lois’s abduction, much less the names of the miraculously rescued girls, both essentially ceasing to exist once the reporters abandoned them years ago and their pictures disappeared from the papers.

Mired in the emotional clutter of a generally directionless career, Chloe balances on the cusp. Only a series of hair care commercials and her minor roles in action films give her the renown she so desperately craves: “people liked to watch me die.” Life for Chloe has become like an existential terror--a kind of pre-death in Hollywood when you suddenly don’t get those phone calls and nobody wants you on the screen. But when she gets a script telling of a kidnapping of two pretty preteen girls and a standoff between police and a lone gunman who staked out a house in the New England woods, she is forced to look at her own back story: the clothes, the hair, and the handsome, mysterious man called Zed who sat back in his ratty and dilapidated Adirondack chair and encouraged his two prisoners to read books.

In Mitchell’s clever, unusual story of aliases and secrets, Zed has been refashioned by Lois into something much more. When skulking student Sean McDougal darkens her office door one early February afternoon, he vaguely reminds Lois of someone. A faint maliciousness seems to gleam in his pale, no-color eyes. Sean is fascinated by Lois’s book, an obsession that masks a much more sinister agenda. Sean lets her know that that he knows about her past. Lois is turned off by this grubby, ill-mannered student who has begun to poke though her life, sending chills through her and becoming the first real threat she has had to confront. Her days befuddled by the moral ambiguity of Sean’s needs and an increasingly unsettled and ambivalent life with her boyfriend, Brad, Lois has an urge to reconnect with Chloe, though the two haven’t talked since the abduction.

The story sometimes comes across full of awkward transitions, Mitchell creating a narrative that orbits a mystery and an unnamed threat. As Lois and Chloe recount their present lives in alternate voices, we learn of their childhood in New England and Nebraska (Chloe’s bitchy, selfish stepmother Gail is the best character in the book). Also inserted is the retelling of the abduction from the point of view of Lois’s novel and the two girls she names Callie and Hannah. This difficult structure becomes weirdly jarring as Lois and Chloe’s past begins to drift through the landscape like a ghost.

The girls have worked hard to keep their past under wraps as they attempt to rewrite their present. Chloe in particular is not content to sit around her Silver Lake bungalow “drinking her face off.” Finally accepting the role of the police detective in the new movie, she goes on a road trip, traveling back to Nebraska to reconnect with her father and finally confront Gail. Then she is on to British Columbia in an oblique, fictional reenactment of her the abduction in which she and Lois attempt peel the layers of their pasts apart, exposing a kindly kidnapper who never meant to break their hearts.

The book might have had a better impact with a more explosive ending (the reasons for Zed’s kidnapping are shrouded in uncertainty and doubt). Meanwhile, writing what will become Deep in the Woods allows Lois to love again and ultimately refashion Zed and Carly May into what she wants them to be. In a dangerous turn, though, she doesn’t reckon on Machiavellian Sean. With his stooped posture, stringy hair and tortured complexion, he invokes a different kind of demon. A cruel twist of fate makes Sean the son of someone from a novel who is perhaps as handsome and intelligent as Zed.

Writing in a unique, quite beautiful literary style that unfolds like a spring thaw, Mitchell works to peel away the layers of what it means to be beautiful: from Zed, who kidnapped the girls but didn’t want to hurt them, to the notion of how beauty can arouse curiosity, desire and half-dead dreams, to the idea that beauty is also power and, like a force, it can lash out without warning. In the end, what fourteen-year-old girl wouldn’t try these tricks once or twice?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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