So I’ve just finished reading Pretty Is, the debut novel by Maggie Mitchell, and at least I can say I tried. You see, I was given this book by a friend, who gave Pretty Is a five star review so I was a little expectant going in. We have different tastes so I wasn’t expecting to like it as much, but I was at least hoping to enjoy it enough so we could have reasonable discussions about it. Unfortunately, when I think about Pretty Is and the time I spent with it, I start to get unreasonably angry, more and more by the second, because I found it not only to be needlessly wistful and mysterious but also drenched in a pretentious attitude that it cannot pull off. I really wanted to like Pretty Is, but I ended up hating it.
Pretty Is follows two young girls, Lois and Carly-May, who are abducted when they are twelve-years-old and taken to a cabin in the woods by a handsome young kidnapper. Far from the horrors of usual kidnappings, the man does nothing to them, merely living an idyllic life with them for six weeks before the police finally track them down. Now, almost twenty years later, the girls are all grown up, living separate, very different lives, having put the past behind them. But as their paths cross again, the past seems to be closer to the surface than they would like to admit.
The main question posed in Pretty Is and the central conceit around which everything resolves is ‘Does there have to a reason for everything?’ It’s definitely an interesting theme but it seems to be misinterpreted here. Author Maggie Mitchell seems to confuse ‘reason’ with ‘character motivation’. In real life, is there a reason we do everything? No, not necessarily. But there is a motivation behind everything. In Pretty Is, we get characters doing things seemingly at random with no rhyme or reason as to why they are doing them. This is okay for the little things, as it is in real life (i.e. there is no real reason why the kidnapper decides to grow a beard) but not for the big things (i.e. there is no real reason why one of the characters decides to entertain a particularly volatile and dangerous sociopath and tell no one about it).
This fog of ambiguity plagues the two central characters most of all. Lois is now a professor at a college, and has written a novel fictionalising her experiences being kidnapped and taken to a cabin in the woods. But she also moans when her novel gets popular and is being turned into a movie because she thinks her past might get found out. That doesn’t really make any sense, seeing as she wrote the novel about the exact thing she doesn’t want to get found out about and she willingly signed away the movie rights. I get writing the novel was some kind of therapy for her to work through the issues but would she not think about this maybe before sending it out to an agent?
Carly-May, or Chloe now, is similarly hard to pin down, if less so. She is rather self-loathing, an alcoholic (when the narrative remembers she’s one) and an actress. She is less concerned with being outed as the kidnapped girl from all those years ago but she also has no real reason for doing anything. There is an entire sub-plot with her step-mother which goes nowhere, and only further highlights the irrational nature of her thought process.
By the end of the book, I harboured an intense dislike for the two girls. They have obviously both been incredibly fucked up by what happened to them, but that fact doesn’t make them any more enjoyable to be around. They both use people, they both value their own happiness above everyone else’s (Lois even directly says this at one point) and they are both unbelievably self-absorbed.
Lois comes off the worst, mostly because Mitchell seems far more interested in her than Chloe (who is, arguably, more compelling) and as a sub-plot with a difficult student escalates when Lois actively enables him. A student called Sean (the sociopath I mentioned earlier) starts harassing Lois when he finds out her real identity and she doesn’t tell anyone. He starts stalking her, pushing stuff under her door and hanging out outside her apartment, but she still doesn’t tell anyone. And then she starts meeting up with him and telling him stories – enabling him even further. Why? Because she’s writing a book, and somehow Sean inspires her. And then when it gets even worse she still doesn’t tell anyone – to the point where she admits she has ‘motherly’ feelings towards him. Seriously, what the hell is going on here?
Maybe this all could have been explained and made sense, but Mitchell isn’t concerned with this. We get at least three discussions in the novel about the differences between fiction and real life, including one between Chloe and her current conquest (of which there are a few) which actively represents the core problems with the novel. Chloe is telling Conquest about the plot of Lois’s book/movie and he doesn’t think it sounds very good. ‘I don’t get it,’ he says, concluding ‘I like movies that make sense.’ A similar conversation is had later between Lois and Sean. ‘How do we determine what’s plausible anyway?’ Lois says ‘What’s plausible to me might not be plausible to you. What you’re willing to believe depends on how you see the world, to a certain extent, doesn’t it?’ Mitchell revels in the fog, trying to illustrate how not everything needs a reason…succeeding in illustrating just why everything does.
It’s not that everything in Pretty Is is bad – occasionally Mitchell touches on something incredibly interesting and presents it well. There is a touching scene where the kidnapper teaches the girls about the solar system, casting them as the Earth and the Moon making them revolve around the room, around him – the sun. It presents us with a nice image whilst also alluding to the fact that they are all intricately connected and cannot survive without each other. This scene stands out as it isn’t directly telling the reader what to think, like most of the rest of the novel. There are a few more of these moments that light up the narrative – just enough to give some hope that maybe things will get better.
Sadly, they don’t. Pretty Is trundles along to a conclusion (which I only call a conclusion because it’s the end of the book) that is as mis-managed and vague as everything that came before it. Things happen and then it ends. Calling this a psychological thriller is a rather big leap in my opinion, and it’s clear that this was intended to be something more akin to literary fiction. But it kind of exists in a bizarre middle ground, a fog of its own. The ideas are not illustrated well enough for it to be literary, and there’s nowhere near enough story for it to be a thriller. It just sort of exists.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I didn’t like Pretty Is. It wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but in it’s aggressiveness to get it’s (incredibly laboured) point across, I started to actively dislike it. Some may say that at least it’s not another formulaic murder/serial killer/investigation thriller, but at the end of Pretty Is, I’m almost longing to get back to them.
Pretty Is wants to be too many things at once. The story of two women, who were abducted as girls, could have been intensely interesting but author Maggie Mitchell seems far too invested in the wrong things. The lack of any real motivation for any of the characters (especially the two leads) gives the novel an odd fantastical quality which it never manages to cast off. In the novel’s attempts to be both a psychological thriller and a literary thought-provoker, it seems to forget to be either. Pretty Is managed to alienate and infuriate me at every turn.
PRETTY IS by MAGGIE MITCHELL