02 April 2011

SO MUCH PRETTY and the "message" thriller

Cara Hoffman's debut completely collapses at the end into a borderline preachy 'message' novel... and I was okay with it, but concerned as to what that says about me. 

SO MUCH PRETTY takes place in the upstate town of Haeden, New York, where family dairy farms are the most successful business in town for lack of any meaningful competition. Several months after being reported missing, a young woman named Wendy White is discovered dead by the side of a road; forensics confirms that she had only been dead an hour. Many perspectives are given room within the White case, but two stand out in their obsession with it: teenager Alice Piper, who knew Wendy from the swim team, and Stacey Flynn, the city paper's sole reporter and editor who originally moved to Haeden hoping to expose environmental crimes among the dairies for a career breakthrough. Without any spoilers, they both decide to 'do something' about Wendy's death.

There are shades of this kind of thing in (I would venture to guess) every successful thriller series. Lawrence Block's PI Matthew Scudder has been covering the same cases for 20 years, but now that he's in AA he has that parallel track occupied in his brain, and his stories contain the narrative of how to live with addiction and still do your job. Cornelia Read's Madeline Dare (A FIELD OF DARKNESS, etc) used to have family money and now only has rich friends and regrets, and her anger about the world outside hers sometimes echoes in the sense of entitlement she struggles to shed.

To come out with your debut, which is well regarded, and go out after an issue like violence against women with a crack like a bat is a mighty thing, but it works best close up. (By the way, the title, which I hate, is a phrase used by one of the town's leering men toward Wendy while she's at work -- the most obvious image of the male entitlement about which the book wants to comment. Anyway.) After I had thought about SO MUCH PRETTY for a few days, the motivations presented at the end completely break down. Alice Piper is an incredibly well-written character, until she's (no spoilers!) not, and I wanted the old Alice back. The resolution of the plot falls apart even as the 'message' terrifies. It's not surprising that small-town reporter Flynn more or less commits career suicide over it. At the same time, if I didn't share her convictions personally, I would have resented being presented over and over again (can't bring myself to write "beaten over the head") with the same strident statements.

No comments: