So Much Pretty
Simon & Schuster
New York, New York, 2011
"The responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious," Cara Hoffman's debut novel, "So Much Pretty," advises. Having read this on page four, the reader is instantly alerted to observe the finer details of the story. Hoffman takes her readers on a journey that leaves it up to them to put the pieces together and figure out the truth about what goes on in the tiny upstate New York town of Haeden.
In a society where media is often used to distract rather than inform, the task of sifting through information to discover reality is not an easy one. Hoffman illustrates this difficulty in "So Much Pretty," where the characters discover that they have let several atrocities slip by unnoticed, even in a town as small as theirs - namely the kidnap, rape and murder of a local girl, Wendy White.
While this talented new author delves into society's responsibility to pay attention, she further explores themes of corruption and crimes against women. The local dairy farm is suspected of letting its waste run into the town's water system, but none of the townspeople have the guts to confront the dairy. This novel does an excellent job of showcasing the problematic relationship between corruption and people who are willing to stand by rather than question the actions of those in power. Fortunately, Hoffman introduces strong female characters to counteract this behavior. Both the local journalist Stacy Flynn and the strong-minded, independent teenager Alice Piper try to observe their surroundings and pay attention to the obvious. This attitude allows them to investigate and expose the prevalent violence against women that not only their state, but the whole country, experiences.
Hoffman is no stranger to writing about these substantive topics, having started her career as an investigative reporter. She manages to not only create a plot and believable characters, but also to raise awareness for the issues of both physical violence and the second-class treatment women may be subject to, especially in a male-driven society like the one in Hoffman's novel.
Hoffman makes this point when she writes about Wendy's death.
"Men raped her, men killed her, men dumped her, men found her, men are examining her remains, men are looking for the men who did it. Then the men who did it will be represented in court by men, and a man will make the decision based on laws men made."
Hoffman raises awareness and tells an engaging story. She deconstructs our society and entertains, knowing exactly how to tease readers, giving just enough information to allow them to formulate ideas and conspiracies of their own, but not enough that they have the full story.
The novel is told through multiple people's points of view, ranging from Alice's mother to Wendy herself. Some sections even include school essays and papers written by the 15-year-old Alice. In being given the stories of all the different characters, readers are drawn into the story and allowed to make up their minds about who is responsible, who is lying, and who is telling the truth.
Part of what makes Hoffman's novel so deliciously frustrating is that the reader is treated as another member of the narrative and is referred to as though she already has an understanding of the circumstances, forcing her to work to catch up with the other characters' knowledge of events.
Once the reader does catch up, one almost wishes to be able to go back and unlearn the tragic events, but Hoffman's sometimes unpleasant novel changes the reader for the better, even when Alice starts to lose faith in humanity's treatment of women, saying, "I live inside a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide, and then wait in line to rape." Hoffman handles this reality, which some people don't want to face, with authority and mastery. Using her strong female lead characters, she shows her readers that it's necessary to eschew the prevailing denial and face the corruption, injustice to women, and the societal norms that maintain them. It's our job to keep our eyes open and observe our surroundings, because no one can do it for us.
It's impossible not to be changed after reading this book. It's both haunting and moving, and it brings up issues that need to be addressed in this country and in the world. As the character Stacy Flynn says, "If you wanted a historical monument - you know, one that had casualties, beatings, rapes, and disfigurations - you'd need something like the Great Wall of China."
This sobering thought is just one of the many points about society that "So Much Pretty" succeeds in conveying to the readership. Hoffman's excellent first venture into fiction literature is sure to leave her readers hungering for more.