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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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
When I read fiction, and the book clearly contains some of the author's personal feelings on their own "causes", I can be put off. This did not happen in So Much Pretty. Perhaps because I am a mother of two girls, (young women now)
an amateur environmentalist, an animal lover (vegetarian), the subject matter was exciting. One reviewer mentioned Hoffman's "angry" writing. It is angry, and bleak and gorgeous. Her journalistic chops show in the words, and sentiment.
Like Laura Lippman, she knows of what she speaks. She's seen it.
The writing structure in So Much Pretty may take a while for the reader to embrace. It did me, for a very short time. Then it flowed, folks. Beautifully. I was captivated by the Pipers. Most especially, young Alice. I loved her parents,
and identified with them, sometimes painfully so. Every thing these characters felt, and did, and valued, rang so true to who they were. Hoffman has managed to create some of the most authentic people in literature that I have met
in recent years. The voices are eerily real.
Another thing, the most important thing, is that Hoffman has managed to defy any genre with this work. It has it all. A mystery, a literary novel, a coming of age story. When describing the town itself, and it's longtime inhabitants,
I was reminded of the ghost stories my sister and I used to tell each other. An omnipresence of evil is always lurking. It speaks to the darkest places we all might have inside of us. Bigotry and small-mindedness, and violence. Always
violence, and yes, always against women.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This was one of the best books I have ever read. It's difficult to get through, but extremely thought provoking. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Amber Rose
This story conveys what's wrong with a society that allows women to be brutalized better than anything I've ever seen or read on the subject; if it doesn't change your view of the... Read morePublished 5 months ago by Everyone's A Critic
Maybe more like 3.5 stars. This one lost me partway through, although the last third of the book, when everything comes together in a quite horrific way, did pick up the pace... Read morePublished 10 months ago by kbirdlincoln
I struggled with keeping the characters straight. The dialogue between the kids seemed unbelievable. I stopped reading before the midway point.Published 12 months ago by R. Adams
Not sure if I have ever read a book with so much unnecessary dialog. My guess would be that maybe one third of this book was pertinent to the story. Read morePublished 13 months ago by Dellyn
Found it disjointed, dark and at times poorly written.Published 16 months ago by Loyola M Westmoreland
The setting is Haeden, New York, a small farming town that could be anywhere.
The characters who tell their tales are many. Read more