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So Much Pretty: A Novel Paperback – March 6, 2012
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Five months after she disappeared, Wendy’s body is found in a ditch just off one of Haeden’s main roads. Suddenly, Flynn has a big story, but no one wants to talk to her. No one seems to think that Wendy’s killer could still be among them. A drifter, they say. Someone “not from here.”
Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper is an imaginative student with a genius IQ and strong ideals. The precocious, confident girl has stood out in Haeden since the day her eccentric hippie parents moved there from New York City, seeking a better life for their only child. When Alice reads Flynn’s passionate article in the Haeden Free Press about violence against women—about the staggering number of women who are killed each day by people they know—she begins to connect the dots of Wendy’s disappearance and death, leading her to make a choice: join the rest in turning a blind eye, or risk getting involved. As Flynn and Alice separately observe the locals’ failure to acknowledge a murderer in their midst, Alice’s fate is forever entwined with Wendy’s when a second crime rocks the town to its core.
Stylishly written, closely observed, and bracingly unexpected, So Much Pretty leads the reader into the treacherous psychology of denial, where the details of an event are already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, reconciled or revealed.
Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling author of the Alex Cooper crime novels—whose 2011 entry in the series is Silent Mercy—was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney's office in Manhattan for more than two decades and is America's foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence. Here, she interviews Cara Hoffman, author of So Much Pretty, a novel that centers on the disappearance of a young woman from a rural New York community.
Fairstein: As I read So Much Pretty, which is a stunning debut novel, I was reminded of The Lovely Bones. What do you think it is about our society that is so fascinated by the victimization of young women?
Hoffman: I think we are fascinated by the victimization of women, especially young women, because that kind of violence is revelatory of who we are; it’s common and all-pervasive but treated as though it is very rare and shocking. The fascination lies in the sense that a known secret is being revealed and that denial is being shattered by physical evidence, which is always frightening and exhilarating and titillating to people. I also think that there is a fascination with the victimization of women because some people obviously take pleasure in it. There’s an undeniably misogynistic core to our society—its days are numbered for sure—but it’s still there, and one of the ways it flexes, especially as it gets weaker, is to focus on images of women as naked, vulnerable, afraid and dead.
Fairstein: In So Much Pretty , you make the point that we should "pay attention to the obvious." As a prosecutor, I saw hundreds of cases where women were assaulted or killed by men they knew. How did you go about writing a novel in which the whodunit aspect is actually less integral than the why?
Hoffman: As a journalist I’ve always felt "why" was the question that mattered the most, that made clear all the extenuating circumstances and unearthed the subtext of the story. Knowing that a crime has been committed doesn’t get you anywhere. Knowing WHY might. And for that we have to focus on many details about the perpetrators and where they came from, what made them who they are. Those details were very much on my mind when I was writing So Much Pretty.
Fairstein: You have also said that we are "inundated by violence and it becomes something that drives our aesthetics." Can you give readers some insight as to how you balance the task of writing about this subject with the feeling that it is perhaps too widely accepted as an "entertainment" trope in books, movies and television?
Hoffman: This is a fantastic question. And it really is a tough balancing act. I’m reminded of that part in Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead, where he shows how anti-war movies depicting graphic violence are cheered and lauded by soldiers, how they become a kind of recruiting tool. And I am very much aware of how similar things play out in film and fiction depicting sexual violence. I thought about this daily with So Much Pretty and discussed it a lot with friends who are journalists, and with my brother who is an ethicist. I think, because of its ending, it would be very, very difficult for someone who is entertained by violence against women to get what they’re looking for from So Much Pretty.
Fairstein: Although I draw from real motives and character traits in writing my novels, I don't base the central story on an actual case or crime. Was So Much Pretty inspired by a real-life case?
Hoffman: It was. The details and locations have been changed, but the novel is based on a case I covered when I was in my early twenties. Unlike Flynn’s situation in So Much Pretty, it was one of the first significant stories I wrote about for a community newspaper, and it was the first time I’d been assigned to write about anything other than environmental issues.
Fairstein: Most reviewers distinguish "literary fiction" from the crime genre. I think some of the best crime novelists write brilliant fiction. Would you consider this book a "crime novel" or not?
Hoffman: Another great question and one that really made me think about the hard boiled novels that I love. I don’t consider So Much Pretty a crime novel, though it centers around two fairly gruesome criminal events. I consider it an accurate pastoral. Pastorals of course were born from a kind of exhaustion of war writing, the need to lay down among the tall grass with the lambs and pretend that the bloody world of coercion doesn’t exist. In So Much Pretty you get to see what really goes on in that landscape and find that it’s not a reprieve but rather a mirror of war. Flynn takes up this idea explicitly, saying about the people of Haeden, that she was "thrown, entirely thrown by the price of their quiet lives, their contentment." So Much Pretty reveals an uncomfortable truth about who has been paying that price and for how long. And brings clarity to a very simple but intentionally obscured world people are heavily invested in seeing as "mysterious." You don’t stop violence by looking away from it. But looking at it means addressing our own culpability and complicity and making difficult decisions about how to act.
Claire Piper addresses the losing battle many people face to remain focused and honest when she says, "Sleep had won out at last. We moved through our days in Haeden in a somnolent kind of daze; blithe when our senses called for panic, blind to our deepest fear, even as it lay, naked among the tall weeds, waiting." Ultimately, So Much Pretty is not about one specific crime—it’s about a criminal way of life, and the difficult choices families, communities and everyday folks have to make in order to live with their awareness of that criminality.
Fairstein: As a long- time victim advocate, I think one of the most powerful points in your book was the paragraph in which you asked: "How disposable is a woman's life? How expected. How unsurprising. How normal. How many times a week, a month, a year does that happen?" I truly admire what you have created in this novel, bringing the issue of sexual violence into the public conversation. You write with such elegance and the skills of a superb storyteller. You have my very best wishes for the success of So Much Pretty.
Hoffman: Thank you, Linda. I’m honored that you value my writing. And thank you for the truly groundbreaking work that you have done on behalf of women everywhere.
(Photo of Linda Fairstein © Peter Simon)
(Photo of Cara Hoffman © Jon Reis)
From Publishers Weekly
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Top Customer Reviews
SO MUCH PRETTY is also about a missing woman although in this case we do find out what has happened and it is not good. For me, what sets this book apart from the others is the underlying emotion of the story. It is not grief, or fear, or even anger. It is absolute fury. The kind of fury that reminds you the word was inspired by the avenging deities in Greek mythology who torment criminals. Avenging deities who are usually portrayed as female.
I was bowled over by how well Cara Hoffman was able to harness that fury and not let it overwhelm the story. Her writing is controlled and pointed and utterly merciless. For me, this was a tough and at times a painful read. But I haven't stopped thinking about this book since I finished it and I will remember it long past the usual time books fade in my memory.
"So Much Pretty," a first novel by Cara Hoffman, goes there.
It's ugly stuff. And it reads ugly. There were moments when I wept, when I cursed the dream that came true --- that we would have a daughter.
No other way to say it: "So Much Pretty" is the ugliest book I have read in years --- and I couldn't put it down.
The novel as screed doesn't work for me. It's the literary equivalent of a song about politics. It may define a season, but seasons pass. And the next time you think of that book or that song, it's with nostalgia.
No danger of that here. "So Much Pretty" is a thriller. Not a traditional one --- it's told by many people, the time sequence is fragmented, and, yes, there's a flaw: some extraneous adults sometimes blur and confuse. But it's certainly scary. Alfred Hitchcock said the key to his movies is that he presented fears that were greater than the ones that viewers experienced every day. Well, what's scarier than a girl from a small town who disappears --- and is found dead, months later, less than a mile from her apartment. Whodunnit? Not a hit man from Chicago.
"So Much Pretty" is set in an upstate New York community that's as menacing as the Georgia woods in "Deliverance." Once farmland, now it's not much of anything. It seems entirely possible that a local kid --- or three, or five --- could decide they can take a girl and hold her so they can enjoy her any old time they please. And there, just getting to be kind of pretty, is Wendy White, a hometown girl who works as a waitress....
Wendy is one of three females who drive this novel. Another is Stacy Flynn, a feisty young reporter from the local paper. She's from Cleveland, she's won a Polk Award --- she knows Wendy is alive, and close by, and that when Wendy's body is found, "stupidity became a form of politeness." And then there is Alice Piper, 15, a genius, a free spirit --- and, now, an amateur sleuth.
Without dropping any spoilers, the most exciting thing about this book is that it takes a big turn --- it almost begins again --- when Wendy's body is found. Let's just say that someone craves justice for Wendy. And has an astonishing way to get it.
When I finished "So Much Pretty," I was desperate to talk to someone. Why not the author? So Cara Hoffman and I had a phone call...
Jesse Kornbluth: The crime at the heart of "So Much Pretty" suggests that men hate women and regard them as less than human.
Cara Hoffman: They actually hate both men and women. Women are just easier targets. But yes, the book is, in part, about male hatred of women.
JK: I cannot imagine what it was like to write this book.
CH: I did a lot of research, so the hard days were mostly when I just read cases of women being killed or brutalized. But the actual writing was bracing.
CH: This is a big subject, hidden in plain sight. Turning the research into something I thought could matter --- that was liberating.
JK: Sorry to be stuck here, but I have trouble finding "liberation" in defining a woman as "a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide and then wait in line to rape..."
CH: I have a woman's body. Of course that was hard to write. But to write that line is an act of resistance. And writing it was a privilege. And writing almost always puts me in a focused, altered state --- whatever people take Adderall for, I've already got.
JK: You ask in the book: "How disposable is a woman's life?" And the answer...
CH: Very. Every single day, every half hour, someone is disposing of a woman's life. And that is very entertaining in this country. Look at "CSI" --- it usually begins with a female victim. Look at the news. As much as possible, media links to sex. You see a piece about a man who sets his girlfriend on fire; the picture is of her in a bikini.
JK: There's a chilling line in the book: "A man can only take so much pretty walking back and forth in front of him." I don't think that line would work so well in a city.
CH: Yes, it's a more rural attitude. In rural areas throughout the world, women's rights are paltry at best. J
JK: In real life, is there a cure for men who have, to put it simply, too much testosterone?
CH: I'm not a sociologist. I'm a fiction writer.
JK: You have a son. What do you tell him about others of his gender?
CH: He's a feminist --- naturally. He's interested in social justice.
JK: Do you see him as exceptional --- or has there been a generational shift?
CH: I think a lot of boys don't have the same difficulty with gender issues. Every time something positive happens for gays, things get better for women too --- homophobia and misogyny are linked.
JK: What are your relations with men like?
Though there is a certain satisfaction from living in the countryside, the pervasive unimaginativeness of the locals is distressing, especially to Claire. Surprisingly, they discover a lack of genuine community. The economy is dominated by big-box stores and one huge dairy farm - the owning family being foremost among the town's elite. An inconvenient problem, widely suppressed by tacit agreement, is that the farm is a huge producer of chemical wastes, which seep into the ground water of the area. That situation has brought Stacy Flynn to Haedon from Cleveland, where she was an award-winning journalist, to produce the local paper. Though she tries to conceal her mission of exposing environmental degradation, the locals are quite leery of her - she seems like a troublemaker. As it turns out, that is not the big story that falls into her lap.
Virtually all teenagers leave Haeden after HS, based partly on a grass-is-greener on the other side philosophy, but not Wendy White. She enjoyed the familiar surroundings and staying in contact through her job as a waitress at a local tavern. Her life definitely took an upwards turn when the oldest son of the dairy owner, Dale Haytes, took note of her maturing good looks and started regularly dating her. That is why it was so strange when she simply disappeared. When her abused body is easily spotted five months later - obviously just being placed there, Stacy, having been obsessed with the disappearance all this time, produces a devastating article on the high rate of unacknowledged abuse directed towards women in rural America.
Though several years younger, Alice knew Wendy primarily as a past member of the top-notch Haeden HS swimming team. Alice's extraordinary perceptiveness is kicked into high gear upon Wendy's discovery and Stacy's article. She puts together bits and pieces of conversations and behavior that she has overheard or observed in the last several months and realizes that she knew more about Wendy's disappearance than she could express at the time. Now she is on a mission of exposure, if not revenge.
The book is both compelling and vague - too much swerving among characters, actions, and themes. Some of the characters are potentially interesting, but they all remain obscure. Even Alice's relationship with her cousin, friend, etc, Theo, is sketchy, and at times ethereal. The book is definitely a sobering take on the desirability, even possibility, of even the well-intentioned fitting into a smallish rural community.