Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, is a book about loneliness and longing. It tells the story of two young women who were abducted by a stranger and held for six weeks in a remote woodland cabin when they were twelve years old, an experience which has haunted their lives ever since. It is an exploration of how family and society expect children to behave; of complex relationships, jealousy and a child’s singular need for attention and admiration.
Carly-May is a pageant princess from a remote town in Nebraska. She despises her step-mother and resents that her father defers so many decisions to this brash and narcissistic interloper. Carly-May is intelligent but has been led to believe that her beauty will be of more use to her in the adult world. She dreams of escape and fame, of returning to her father as a grown up and basking in the acclaim she longs for. When a stranger tells her to climb into his car she feels trepidation, but is almost happy to be driven away.
Lois is a spelling bee champion who lives with her parents in their up market guest house. They are always busy with guests leaving her alone with her books. She has been raised to be polite so agrees to help the stranger who pulls up alongside her in his car.
The abduction is that simple; children doing as they are told, behaving towards an adult as they have been taught, and then responding to the kindness and attention they are starved of at home.
The story is told from the point of view of the young women these girls have grown into. Carly-May became Chloe, an actress who has never quite achieved the fame she believed she deserved. Lois is a college professor and novelist, her debut work based on the abduction, now being adapted for the big screen. The girls have not been in touch since they were returned to their families who felt it was best to keep them apart, to have them put the trauma behind them.
The families view this trauma as the kidnap, refusing to entertain the possibility that the girls were more affected by the loss of their kidnapper.
The impact of those six weeks, especially on Lois, seems at times to be overplayed. For an obviously intelligent woman she makes serious errors of judgement when a student takes an unhealthy interest in her past. This does, however, enable the reader to better understand how stalled her development has been.
The writing is compelling; I read this book in a day, and enjoyed the way it made me think. It is rare for children as young as twelve to be given such complex roles, for their feelings and how they respond to experiences to be explored in such depth. It made me wonder if a child can ever feel loved enough to satisfy given their natural introspection.
Although I would describe this as a thriller, and there is pace and tension in spades as Lois’s student closes in on his prey, it is the character development that I admired. The adults could not comprehend why the girls did not do more to try to get away from their captor. They did not recognise that it was the everyday lives imposed on them that they dreamed of escaping.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion Books.