I review Pretty Is, the thrilling debut by Maggie Mitchell.
This review contains spoilers.
Everyone thought we were dead. What else could they think?
One summer, nearly twenty years ago, two twelve year olds were abducted and kept captive in the forest.
There they formed a bond that could never be broken.
What really happened in the woods that summer?
Pretty is as pretty does… But what does pretty do, exactly?
Aged 12, Lois and Carly May were kidnapped by a man only referred to as Zed, and taken to a cabin in the woods. There they are held for 6 weeks, reading, playing, wondering when Zed will make a move, of any kind. But he never does. The police eventually catch up with him, and he puts a bullet in his own head. The girls are rescued unmolested, unharmed, yet they still feel tainted.
Lois and Carly May, separated by their parents and so many miles, drift apart, despite fierce promises to stay in touch, to remember. Carly May continues on the pageant route before pursuing a career as an actress under the new name of Chloe Savage. Lois remains studious, becoming a Victorian Literature professor and undercover fiction writer, Lucy Ledger.
Whenever I see a story within a story, I usually groan, cursing the author for lazy writing. But I rather enjoyed Mitchell’s inclusion of an extract from Deep In The Woods, the book written by Lucy Ledger (Lois), which is being turned into a film, in which Chloe Savage (Carly May) will star. Pretty Is is deeply layered, and sometimes you feel as if you’re only scratching the surface.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews about how this book – and, by default, the author – hates women. I’m as keen a feminist as the next, well, feminist, and a vocal one at that, but I didn’t get this vibe from Pretty Is. The girls are clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having developed a strange relationship with their kidnapper during their time together. They didn’t understand why he chose them. Most teenage girls want to feel like they’re special, and Zed made both Lois and Carly May believe that he had picked them for a reason, but they never discovered what that reason was. What was his motive? He didn’t molest them, he didn’t physically harm them, he simply picked them up and kept them hidden in a cabin. Zed didn’t act like what we might think of as the typical kidnapper, and neither the girls nor the reader can quite work out why. It’s clear that it’s the mystery surrounding why they were chosen is what haunts both Lois and Carly May.
Another side of Pretty Is is the strange relationships between girls. We see this theme in Mean Girls, in various other books (see my To The Girls post). How we, as teenage girls, have intense, almost obsessive relationships with other girls; girls we look up to, idolise, tell all our secrets to, and stab so cruelly in the back – or receive the knife instead. Not every teenage girl is this way, of course, but I’m willing to bet that many women could tell you about such a friendship from her schooldays. This theme fascinates me, and is something I’ve written about myself. Mitchell manages to convey this strange theme brilliantly, and in the process creates such perfectly imperfect characters. Lois and Carly May have obvious flaws – flaws that some of us have, but only in our heads, ones we wouldn’t dream of admitting to.
The suggested further reading at the back of the book are excellent choices, and I was slightly dismayed to see that I’d already read all but one of them. Because I want more of the same. I’ll certainly keep a sharp eye open for more of Mitchell’s work.
I’m not sure how to discuss this part without spoilers, so here ends the spoiler-free review.
I confess to being somewhat disappointed with the ending. I half-expected Brad, Lois’ friend and colleague, to end up being Zed’s son. Sean, although deranged, clearly wasn’t his son, but he still turned up at the film set and threatened the young actresses who were playing Lois and Carly May in the film. I wasn’t entirely sure why he was there, or what it added to the story. Sean’s weird behaviour throughout the book clearly inspired Lois’ sequel, and fueled her own concerns about Zed’s son and a possible thirst for revenge, but his motive for being a prick (pardon my French) to Lois wasn’t revealed. I feel like that could have been portrayed slightly differently, but it really is my only issue with Pretty Is.