So, as you may have noticed, I haven’t been around a whole lot for the last year. Mostly this is down to laziness (& being busy with other things, sorry!), so you’ll have to excuse me for suddenly reappearing. As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been writing and editing away, and in October I started working for Waterstones. I LOVE IT.
So while I haven’t been reviewing, I have certainly still been reading. And buying too many books (far, far too many). But this week, I finished a book that just made me stop. I had to review it. I got the proof of this book through work, and before that I’d been trying to get my hands on it for a while. Even the blurb had me entranced.
Yes, this book is so good it has prompted me to revive the blog. IT’S THAT GOOD. Guys, I can’t even stop thinking/talking/obsessing about this book. Why? Well, let me tell you.
Title: Pretty Is
Author: Maggie Mitchell
Paperback: 320 pages
Lois and Carly-May were just twelve when they were abducted by a stranger and imprisoned in a cabin in the woods for two months.
That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they formed a bond that would never be broken.
Decades later, both women have new lives and identities. But the events of that summer are about to come back with a vengeance.
Lois and Carly-May must face the truth about their secret, shared past…
What really happened in the woods that summer?
Pretty Is is one of those rare books that captivates you from the start. From the first line I knew I was sold, and that my excitement about the book had been for good reason. It’s a haunting, powerful debut psychological thriller by an author I will watch with interest. This novel is about being haunted by the past, about friendship and hated and fear, and love. It’s beautifully written, carefully crafted, and generally just epic.
What I liked:
1. The prose
Mitchell’s prose is, in my opinion, absolutely flawless. The novel features beautiful description, managing to create a precise image of the cabin in the woods with what seems like such litle effort. I could picture in my head the characters, the setting, the heat of the summer… It was visceral, and beautiful, and yet realistic.
Mitchell’s imagery is stunning, too. This is the sort of novel where I often sat, enraptured, for good long minutes, mulling over just a few paragraphs. I don’t really know what it is, what exactly makes this writing good, but I know it is. It’s like the words sit on your tongue, you can almost taste them, and you have ultimate faith in the author to convey what it is they want to say.
Perhaps one of my favourite things about this novel is something that I often shun in other novels. The metaphor we are presented with, the idea at the core of the novel that Lois and Carly May are the earth and the moon revolving around some sun that no longer exists… It’s perfect. Beautifully executed, understandable without being heavy-handed. And not just a metaphor for the sake of a metaphor. It’s novels like this, when the writing just makes it, that I love infinitely.
2. The characters/their voices
This novel is pretty much entirely character-driven (I don’t really like that phrase, but it does the trick) and as such we need a strong protagonist. Well, Mitchell gives us two. Lois and Carly May are both so different, and yet they share certain elements in their personalities which compliment the narrative. Lois describes how the girls became alike that summer when they were 12, how they spent so much time together in such strange circumstances that they almost became one person – and years later both women struggle with this, with the boundaries of their own selves, and with their different reinventions of themselves. Mitchell captures this complicated sense of identity perfectly, and their character voices are so distinct I could have basically identified them from a few words alone. It’s amazing – definitely a lesson in characterisation and voice, my writerly friends!
The way the novel is narrated almost gives us this rose-tinted glimpse at an event that was at its heart a very traumatic experience. And because we get this duel narrative, and the way the story is told, we as readers have to bring our own experiences to the novel as well. This novel has serious layers. When they are abducted, both girls are aware of what normally happens to children like them – and yet they don’t seem afraid. Or not as afraid as they should. We get the impression that they are almost afraid to be afraid, and then later that they have come to see the experience as a kind of gift. After all, Zed chose them.
So the reader brings their own fears/nerves/disgust etc to the story, giving it another layer beyond what has actually been writen. We bring ourselves to the novel, our expectations of the story, just as Lois and Carly May had their own expectations that summer. And this novel just destroys these expectations, leaving a raw, haunting narrative behind.
3. The method of telling the story
This is really very clever. Adult Lois is a writer, and part of Pretty Is is taken from her novel about her experiences in the cabin with Zed and Carly May. The fun thing is that we are made very aware of the fact that Lois’ novel is just that – a novel. A fiction. She says that she draws from her memories of that summer, but we know that some of it is fiction. And Lois – Mitchell – never tells us which parts are true and which are not.
So not only do we have two somewhat unreliable narrators when we see into their POVs, but a LOT of our impressions of the girls and their abductor are drawn from this fictionalised account of that summer. What is true? What is false? This just adds to the psychological twisting we get here, never really knowing what to believe. It’s so clever, I’m only mad I didn’t think of it! Very cool.
4. The story
This novel does not have a lot of plot. It’s not what I’d describe as an action-packed thriller at all, but that’s precisely what I loved about it. There is enough story/plot to carry it, with enough threat in the modern day that there’s a driving force behind the characters’ actions. But beyond that, the unconventional nature of their abduction is what drives the characters forward, this burning need to understand what happened and why it happened to them. Lois and Carly May are so caught up in what wasn’t, what didn’t happen that what actually happened instead haunts them, torments them, and consequently informs their lives as adults. They couldn’t just get on with their lives.
You almost get the sense that if what had happened to them had been what they were expecting, even if that was terrible, then the characters might have been able to move past it. But they couldn’t. And this is so powerful. Instead of being a story about “Here is a character who is tormented by their abuse/abduction/trauma but uses it to their advantage when something bad happens later”, this is a novel that explores the fine line between love and hate, and the confusion caused by it all. It is a story about synergy, and loss of innocence.
What I didn’t like:
Literally nothing. This book took me two weeks to read purely because I didn’t want to finish it. I tried to read as little as possible, stretch it out. I would have loved for it to be 1,000 pages long if the same story could have been told in such a way. Of course it couldn’t, but this book was so close to perfect I can’t even explain it. I want to turn back to the beginning and start all over again – but I won’t because I’m going to be lending my copy to as many people as possible in the next few weeks. I NEED SOMEBODY TO TALK TO ABOUT THIS GENIUS.
Basically, this review is a babbling mess because I just have so many thoughts about this novel. Somebody please read it??? I literally cannot understand how this book doesn’t just have 4/5 star reviews. (Maybe it’s just that I love stories that don’t answer all the questions they ask – and I think the main thing here is I LOVE books with unreliable characters because you can read a lot into them, which some people don’t always do like I do? Who knows…)
(As if you had to guess)