Five months after she disappeared, Wendy’s body is found in a ditch just off one of Haeden’s main roads. Suddenly, Flynn has a big story, but no one wants to talk to her. No one seems to think that Wendy’s killer could still be among them. A drifter, they say. Someone “not from here.”
Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper is an imaginative student with a genius IQ and strong ideals. The precocious, confident girl has stood out in Haeden since the day her eccentric hippie parents moved there from New York City, seeking a better life for their only child. When Alice reads Flynn’s passionate article in the Haeden Free Press about violence against women—about the staggering number of women who are killed each day by people they know—she begins to connect the dots of Wendy’s disappearance and death, leading her to make a choice: join the rest in turning a blind eye, or risk getting involved. As Flynn and Alice separately observe the locals’ failure to acknowledge a murderer in their midst, Alice’s fate is forever entwined with Wendy’s when a second crime rocks the town to its core.
Stylishly written, closely observed, and bracingly unexpected, So Much Pretty leads the reader into the treacherous psychology of denial, where the details of an event are already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, reconciled or revealed.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THEY ARE LOOKING for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.
Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.
It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.
She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. There is a strong possibility she would have a nontraditional job. That she’s transient, works agriculture or construction or second shift.
She has physical strength and is articulate. Could be speaking English or Spanish or French. Could be in New York or Illinois or Tennessee. Canada or Mexico. Places where it rains all day or places where the grass has burnt to yellow. Could be among hollows between road and field, trails where the creek bed has dried. Could be anywhere.
She could be hitchhiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all.
She may be aloof. She may be sensitive and drawn to helping people.
She is on her own and likely broke, and might be reliant on those she doesn’t know.
Searches peaked in the spring and summer months, and they are looking for her still.
As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.
© 2011 Cara Hoffman
ALL THREE OF us walked in our sleep.
Later, when I would think about what happened, I would tell myself she was sleepwalking. Acting out a nightmare. Sleepwalking ran in our family. Dreaming while walking. Dreaming while talking. I know this is not an answer. The real answer is too simple.
Did she have health problems? Was she low–birth weight? Did she have headaches? Self-destructive behavior? Sudden changes in grades or friends? No.
Alice was a remarkably consistent soul. Healthy and athletic like her father. At home wherever she was. Happy at school and happy with all the things outside of school. Gymnastics and trapeze. And later, swimming, building, archery, shooting.
Her focus was so joyful, so intense. Like her happiness, when she was little, about swimming in the river, about building the cardboard forest or the paper Taj Mahal. Once she made a mobile of hundreds of origami frogs, locusts, paper dolls, and butterflies.
She was never bored. Had the same friends at sixteen as she’d had at four. Her teachers talked about how she was a “leader.” It was a word they used often, and this is certainly part of the problem. “A Leader.” But they also talked about how she was sensitive to other children, always so caring.
I am not trying to justify a thing. I am not trying to make excuses for my daughter. I am describing it as it was.
Before April 14, the words “I am Alice Piper’s mother” meant very little to anyone but me. Now those words are a riddle, a koan. A thing I have to understand even though nothing will change, even though the phrase “nothing will change” is something we fought against our entire lives.
The years in which we raised her were marked by diminishing returns for our diminishing expectations. But it hadn’t always been that way.
Things were different in the city. We moved because of Constant’s uncle. Because of Gene’s dreams about land and air and autonomy. But also because of me. Because of traffic and noise and sewer smells and the seventy hours a week I worked at the city’s Comprehensive Free Clinic for the Uninsured on First Avenue.
Prior to moving upstate, Gene and I lived on Saint Mark’s and First Avenue. Then later in a two-bedroom apartment on First and Seventh, with Constant and Michelle Mann, who were also done with their residencies and, like Gene and I, planned on working for Doctors Without Borders. We moved to First and Seventh because of the rooftop, so Gene could have space to plant. In those days everyone but Gene was exhausted—sometimes punch-drunk on three hours of sleep a night, nodding off on the subway coming home from Lenox Hill or staggering bleary-eyed in clogs and scrubs from Beth Israel or CFC. We all felt like the walking dead, knew we were in bad shape, envying Gene, especially later, when he was home all day with the baby. In the end, moving to Haeden was all we wanted.
When we drove out to the house and barn through that wet and green countryside, we were excited. We would finally have a place of our own. The apparent beauty and possibility of it all was overwhelming, something we had tried and failed to build for ourselves the last six years in New York.
Even the double-wides and sloping farmhouses with their black POW and American flags seemed oddly majestic with so much land around them, the tiniest trailers close to creeks or ponds.
As we drove in, I was thinking about Michelle when we worked in the clinic together, saying the responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious. How had we missed the obvious benefit of all this land? A whole house and acreage for the cost of one room on the Lower East Side. I was thinking how, the second we got out of the car and brought our boxes inside and wrote Uncle Ross his rent check, this whole thing would start. In those days I could not wait for it to start.
Alice was two then, and we walked inside and put our boxes down and sat on the kitchen floor, nervous and tired from the drive, eating some blueberries we had bought on the way. She had just woken up and her face was placid and her hair was tangled and she leaned against me eating blueberries, her body warm and gentle from sleep. Then evening came in from the fields and lit the place with sound and stars. Peepers called up from the river, and crickets played below the windows in the grass. It was the first time Alice had heard crickets, and we went out on the porch together, Gene and I, watched her listen, quiet and alert and hunkered down, her whole body taking in the sound. Her blue-stained lips parted and her eyes shining.
It was Alice’s happiness, her joy in those moments, that allowed me to stay even years after, when paying attention to the obvious became a horror.
And for a long time we did not regret our singular vision. Our attempt to strip the irony from the slogans we’d come to live by. Phrases that buoyed us and embarrassed us at the same time. “Demand the Impossible,” “Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach,” anarchist sentiments we first took up in the city as a joke, then ultimately to comfort one another, to remind ourselves that we were different from our cohorts. Those words seemed—with all the incessant construction, and the destruction of the natural world, and Gene becoming fixated on “living the solution” and bringing down corporate agribusiness—more poignant at that time than when real revolutionaries scrawled them on the Paris streets in 1968. We might not have been burning cars and shutting down a city, but we were living in the sterile and violent future they had imagined, and we were certainly committed to destroying one culture by cultivating another.
This sensibility was one more way we were sleepwalking, dreaming. We did not stick with our plan. Though all four of us had passed the initial screening process for Doctors Without Borders, only one of us left on assignment. Gene and I were graced with Alice; Constant became plagued by an American concept of freedom, liquidity, mobility. These changes did not seem pivotal at the time, seemed instead the best possible outcome, exciting, a release. And how could we not admit that what we had been looking for by joining Doctors Without Borders was a release. Absolution from the lifestyle our postresidency careers seemed to necessitate, a lifestyle that was making the four of us—and not our colleagues—sick.
Those early years in Haeden were restful. Literally. Luxurious eight- and ten-hour nights. Waking up to quiet and birds instead of traffic. No six a.m. meetings at the clinic. Each season with its own particular beauty.
Bright, quiet winters snowed in and baking bread together, sitting around the woodstove, each of us silently reading. Summers resonant with the hum and staggered harmony of insects. The meadow in front of our house growing tall and strange from the warm rain. Swimming in the river and tending our vegetable garden. Alice could talk pretty well when we moved, and she loved the sounds, imitated them. Never herself, she was a frog, a mermaid, a bird. Radiant fall spent roasting and canning peppers with the smell of wood smoke on the cool air. And spring: Alice’s favorite time in the world, when everything comes back to life and it’s warm, with patches of snow, and we would wear shorts and big rubber boots and celebrate the first snowbells and crocuses. The air was lush and still cold and smelled like mud. Alice loved to run along the mowed path all the way to the river. In those early summers she was no taller than the goldenrod, just a head above the jack-in-the-pulpit that flanked the trails between the barn and woods. She loved to climb in the exposed roots of trees along the pebbled riverbank and collect stones and dried skeletons of crayfish. She was fearless.
We expected after a few years our friends would come, build, plant. Once Constant had made the money he wanted, once Michelle had finished her assignment, we would get back to the land, we would live and drink and work by the ideals we’d always had. Mutual Aid, No Boredom.
We expected, when Alice was bigger, we’d have enough money to have a real farm and for me to go back to some kind of practice. But these things never happened, and paying attention to the darker aspects of the obvious became a bad way to live if we wanted to stay happy and make friends.
Sleep had won out at last. We moved through our days in Haeden in a somnolent kind of daze, blithe when our senses called for panic, blind to our deepest fear, even as it lay, naked among the tall weeds, waiting.
© 2011 Cara Hoffman
What People are Saying About This
“So Much Pretty unravels a narrative that's rich with suspense and moral complexity. Delicately balancing two story lines, Cara Hoffman dramatizes a death and a disappearance. Along the way, we get caught up in her portraits of those who belong, those who don't, and the irreversible consequences of lives coming together. This story of violence begetting violence is a fine debut.”
—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
“So Much Pretty is a compelling whodunit, an unnerving portrait of just what the back of nowhere looks like, and an arresting meditation on our culture's ongoing acceptance of violence against women. It's powered by both a despairing tenderness and an unflinching rage, each of which, as the novel makes heartbreakingly clear, are more than justified.”
—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad and Like You’d Understand, Anyway
"So Much Pretty is everything I love in a novel—dark, fascinating, beautifully written, impossible to put down. It marks the beginning of what promises to be an indelible literary career for Cara Hoffman."
—Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love
"This beautiful, stealthy novel creeps up on the mesmerized reader, subtly drawing new strands into itself until what begins as the suspenseful story of a rural American murder grows into a dark, disquieting and urgently fascinating examination of the violence and concealment practiced by a whole society. . . Hoffman never surrenders the compassion, insightfulness and humor that make her a masterful navigator of the human heart. This is an impassioned, intelligent and important work of art."—Chris Cleave, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Little Bee and Incendiary
“A haunting suspense novel about a murder mystery based on a real-life missing-persons case.”—Entertainment Weekly, #3 on “The Must List”
“[A] fearless first novel… For all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain. She also shows a mastery of her craft by developing the story over 17 years and narrating it from multiple perspectives. While each has a different take on the horrific events that no one saw coming, the people who live in this insular place remain willfully blind to their own contributions to the deeper causes that made this tragedy almost inevitable.”—New York Times Book Review
“So Much Pretty delivers a skillful, psychologically acute tale of how violence affects a small town . . . To say more about Hoffman's constantly surprising story is to reveal too much, but the payoff is more than worth the slow-building suspense.”—Los Angeles Times
“A dark but powerful debut . . . Hoffman maps the atmosphere of paranoia that descends on the formerly tranquil town as she moves deftly between its inhabitants.”—The New Yorker (Books Pick)
"An extraordinarily smart and beautifully written page turner. . . . suspenseful and highly charged . . . Hoffman passionately blends the issue of violence against women that lurks unacknowledged at the dark edges of our culture with a narrative that paints a grim picture of any-town America. Hoffman’s literary voice is a force and this novel will leave you reeling."—Powells.com
“The way investigative reporter Hoffman navigates the line between what is spoken and unspoken, and portrays a community's desire to address any crisis but the one next door make So Much Pretty a staggering read.”—Huffington Post
“Cara Hoffman has written an intriguing, tangled puzzle of a novel that defies categorization. . . . As haunting and disturbing as Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones. . . . So Much Pretty will be equally provocative and unforgettable for teen readers, especially those who love solving a good puzzle.”—School Library Journal
“Hoffman takes on the poverty, drug abuse, environmental disasters and violence against women that are endemic to a small town in upstate New York. And she does it brilliantly, in stark and poetic prose, expressing a variety of viewpoints on the murder around which the story turns. And she does it in a way that lodges in the corner of your mind and just won't leave. . . . Alice Piper just may be the blonder, less-punk version of Lisbeth Salander, that girl of the dragon tattoo. . . . Everything counts in Hoffman's toned work, as even the tiniest plot point becomes important to the unfolding narrative. Pay attention to So Much Pretty. It's mesmerizing.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
"A spectacular debut: This beautifully constructed mystery, with its engaging characters and intriguing premise, has everything a reader wants."—The Globe and Mail (Canada)
"This beautiful, stealthy novel creeps up on the mesmerized reader, subtly drawing new strands into itself until what begins as the suspenseful story of a rural American murder grows into a dark, disquieting and urgently fascinating examination of the violence and concealment practiced by a whole society. By choosing a small town canvas on which to paint her big picture, Hoffman achieves a focused intensity which she holds on the very edge of anger, without once giving in to it. She never surrenders the compassion, insightfulness and humor that make her a masterful navigator of the human heart. This is an impassioned, intelligent and important work of art, and with it Hoffman takes her place in that select group of American novelists including Philipp Meyer and Adam Haslett who, eschewing nihilism and hauteur, write with urgency and passion about what is really going on out there."
—Chris Cleave, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Little Bee and Incendiary
"So Much Pretty is certain to be talked about—not merely because it is a profound meditation on both public and private violence in small-town America, but for its captivating storytelling which draws you in on a visceral level and leaves you feeling haunted, in the best of ways."
—Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for So Much Pretty includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
So Much Pretty is a novel about family, community, and storytelling. The Pipers are a family built on optimism and on a deep-rooted commitment to community. Claire and Gene have moved with their precocious, beguiling daughter, Alice, to Haeden, New York, for a fresh start and to give Alice the freedom and opportunity they have always wanted for themselves. In doing so, they will unwittingly rewrite the story of her life. Stacey Flynn is a reporter, both a seeker and teller of stories. It is Flynn, gritty, relentless, and ultimately reckless, who will piece together the mysterious disappearance of a local girl, Wendy White—rebuilding her existence from all available fragments and forging a path to the truth.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The story’s prologue is an ominous introduction. How does this dark overture—focused on searching out something that isn’t easily found— frame the story?
2. Describe Claire and Gene Piper’s relationship. How did having Alice affect them, especially in comparison to their doctor friends? Do you consider them to be happy?
3. We know from the start that Alice Piper will end up in some kind of trouble, though we don’t learn what it is until later. How does knowing (and not knowing) affect your view of her as the story unfolds?
4. Stacy Flynn says she sees a vast emptiness in Haeden. What drew her there besides just a big story? Was she looking for emptiness or a blank canvas?
5. The idea of things not being what they appear to be is a constant theme throughout the novel, such as when Gene Piper muses that “people would continue to use words like ‘farm’,’ forest’, and ‘town’ long after the words no longer fit the reality of the landscape.” (21) He thinks “Haeden was being collectively dreamed by its inhabitants.” What does he mean? Does this apply just to Haeden, or is there a greater significance to the idea?
6. Michelle Mann tells her friend, “It is the duty of every intelligent person to pay attention to the obvious. (4)” In what ways do the Piper idealism and the townspeople’s fixed ideas cause them to miss things that are right in front of them? What are the things they miss?
7. Flynn is suspicious that Alex Dino, the police chief, knows more about Wendy White’s death than he is admitting. Is this Flynn’s desire for intrigue, or just a suspicion? What does the answer turn out to be?
8. Wendy White didn’t want to leave Haeden or go to college. Was money the only reason she stayed while her friends left? What else kept her there?
9. After White’s death, Flynn describes Haeden’s reaction: “The silence feels like calm. But it’s a point beyond rage.” (59) What is Flynn saying here? Is there truth behind it?
10. How do Flynn’s attitude and outlook change after living in Haeden and dealing with its residents? In what ways does she remain the same?
11. The novel is a pastiche of different parts of the characters: letters, audio files, and Alice’s school papers. Why does the author include these? In what ways do they add to the story for you? What do these pieces say about Alice as she grows older?
12. The story is full of contradictions: Gene not approving of his friend Constant’s pharmaceutical career, though the money supports his family; the police investigating many angles except for White’s boyfriend; the family with the oldest ties to the community poisoning the land and acting as a subsidiary of a large corporation. What do you think these contradictions say about Haeden and its residents?
13. When Theo moves away, why does he think Alice won’t be okay without him? How does he think using their secret play world would protect them?
14. Alice describes the butterflies as “camouflaged as one thing—so they could one day be another”. (162) What larger symbolism does this have in connection to the story?
15. Gene and Claire wanted to live off the grid; how does this affect them as parents? Was the decision fair to Alice? Did they give her too much space, or not enough?
16. Discuss the author’s use of pacing and how it affects the story’s tension. How does the story move as the tension builds?
17. Do you agree with Alice’s final actions? Although legally wrong, was she morally correct?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOKCLUB
- Become a journalist like Flynn and write some fictitious stories about the characters you’ve met in the novel, or write about people in your own community.
- Alice loved The Wind in the Willows. Devote some time at the end of your club meeting to discussing this classic of children’s literature.
- After they are separated, Alice and Theo correspond by letters. Whom did you write letters to when you were young? Why not reconnect with an old friend using paper and pen?
- Violence against women is a key component of the story. Volunteer at a local women’s shelter or crisis line, or raise funds for these organizations with your fellow book club members. You can get more information on how to become involved at the following websites:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: www.ncadv.org
Family Violence Prevention Fund: www.endabuse.org
National Online Resource Center for Violence Against Women: www.vawnet.org
Men Can Stop Rape: www.mencanstoprape.org
One in Four: www.oneinfourusa.org
A CONVERSATION WITH CARA HOFFMAN
You come from upstate New York yourself. How much of this story is autobiographical?
The landscape, the dialect, and the cultural sensibilities depicted in So Much Pretty are certainly based on many years of observation and straight reportage. Haeden is based on a real town upstate, a place where the cultural divide is pronounced and complex. The autobiographical elements of the book are disparate. Obviously I share a number of traits with the character Stacy Flynn and have worked on the kinds of stories she covers in the book, but as with all authors, there are various elements of my personal experiences seeded throughout the novel. Upstate New York is an interesting place—the aura of a Grimm’s Fairy tale hangs about it.
The story is based on a real case. Why did you want to write about such a difficult topic? What type of research did you do?
So Much Pretty was inspired by one specific case, but in reality the circumstances are extremely common. I wanted to write about this topic because I feel that we are inundated with violence and it becomes something that drives our aesthetics, becomes entertaining— especially sexual, predatory violence. We’re told that these things are shocking, but really they are very common. There is a banality and a predictability to it all; the disappearance, the search, and the inevitable discovery of a dead woman or girl, who has nearly without exception been sexually assaulted. When I was a young reporter working for a small independent publication and writing about this topic, I was shocked by how easy it was for people to be scandalized and vicariously thrilled and somehow vindicated by the sexual assault and murder of a person, a member of the community, because of gender. As for research, I immersed myself in archives and online sources and read several hundred—probably close to a thousand—accounts of women killed by partners, strangers, and family members. And I had primary source material from interviews I’d done in my early twenties as part of a story I‘d worked on. Every week that I was researching for the book, more cases would pop up in the national and local news as they always do: Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, the sixteen-year-old gang raped outside of a school dance, and the unidentified woman’s body found in a trailer ten miles down the road, and the PhD candidate who cut his wife‘s throat. In our culture it’s incredible to me how accustomed we are to the image of a brutalized, naked, dead woman.
Why did you choose to write the story in the manner you did—discussing the fallout to an action readers don’t see until the end?
I wanted to write this novel in fragments. Like collecting the pieces of something that has shattered. There were two main reasons for my writing the book this way. One was so that it would reflect the process Flynn or any reporter or cop goes through to get information, often from unreliable or compromised sources. And the other was to mirror the psychological structure of denial—so that the reader experiences that denial, that thing hidden in plain sight from the self. I wanted the reader to be party to the amassing of details and stories about an event that is already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, revealed or reconciled. This is also why the narrative moves between different periods of time and different narrators. I wanted there to be a sense of grappling with what is known and what is hidden.
Alice is at once athletic and smart, but she also lives in her own world. Where did the character come from in your mind?
I envisioned Alice Piper as a very traditional character—a classic epic hero and a classic antihero. An outsider who has many skills, who is fearless, who comes to a place that is controlled by an unacknowledged power, who defeats it though her birthright and training and then moves on. This kind of narrative and this kind of character is very old. But I suspect Alice seems unusual in part because she’s not “High Plains Drifter”—she’s a young girl and generally girls play other traditional roles throughout popular culture and literature; their inner lives are still for the most part uncharted territory. I conceived of Alice as someone who is driven to achieve and understand and fix the things that she sees as wrong in the world, then suffers a disillusionment that causes her to act. In her mind these actions are clearly her ethical obligation. “ It would hardly be rational,“ she says, “to accept that I am a thing made of flesh that men capture, hide and wait in line to rape.“ Alice is the natural product of her environment, her upbringing, and her parents’ ideologies. Her disillusionment and horror and rage are common coming-of-age experiences for women, ones we all have but don’t talk about. I believe there are many girls like Alice Piper in the world, and their numbers are growing, girls with rich inner lives, capable of things we can barely anticipate. That’s why I created the character.
In the end, Alice seems to get away free. Why did you choose to end the story this way?
Every central character in So Much Pretty gets away—Alice, Dale, Flynn, Tom Cutting, the Pipers, Constant. But it’s a haunted kind of freedom for everyone.
How is your work as a journalist affected your storytelling? Is it an easy switch to make?
I have always written fiction or creative nonfiction in addition to reporting, and don’t feel it’s difficult making the transition from one form of writing to the other. I think this is a pretty common experience. Changing careers from reporter to novelist has been the traditional trajectory of writers for the last century; it’s only been in the past few decades that creative writing has been “professionalized” through the university system and the MFA. So, yes, the switch was very easy to make. The conventions of being a reporter helped me immensely as a fiction writer. Remaining deadline-driven and being focused on accuracy, patterns of speech, detail, and the economy of language became second nature to me as a reporter, and those skills have served me well as a fiction writer. Reporting is an excellent foundation. Working in a newsroom beats you down and gives you real-world writing and—maybe more importantly—real-world social skills. Reporting makes you skeptical, reveals how people’s lives are interesting and rich and serious, demands that you research before putting ink on the page, and exposes you to intense criticism. It also provides great discipline; you get work done while phones are ringing, the scanner is going off, and five or six people are talking right next to you. You have to write coherently and objectively about things that may be upsetting or distracting, and you can’t make excuses or you‘ll be fired. Essentially, reporting provides enormous insights and busts your chops at the same time, which is a great way to learn how to be a novelist.
What is your writing process? How long did it take to
write this story?
It took me a year to write So Much Pretty, but for a long time I had been thinking about the story and researching related topics, like environmental issues, the transformation of rural America, violence against women, and school shootings, and the convergence of all these seemingly discrete social issues. As far as the process is concerned I don’t know that I have one routine way of doing things. I like to outline several projects and work on them simultaneously, so that if I get distracted with one I have something to move on to and immerse myself in. I’ve done most of my writing in the same room with a child playing Legos under the table, telling me his ideas, insisting he’s a mouse who works as a lineman for the cable company, or just singing loudly. I wrote the first draft of So Much Pretty with this now older child’s punk band practicing in the attic of my apartment, and sometimes I had to “ask” them to stop. Quiet is nice, but after a while I learned I didn’t need it in order to work. If there is any process that I believe in, it’s just relaxing and knowing that all external sensory information is going to be a benefit somehow, especially in writing fiction. Remaining a part of the real world is the big challenge for writers. You can’t write about people’s lives if you take yourself out of the equation and limit your emotional and intellectual existence to things going on in your head—that‘s what dreaming is for. I guess my process has to do with being awake and then writing things down, regardless of what is going on around me. Writing is no mystery, it’s a trade, a job like any other.
What is the message that you’d like this novel to send to readers?
What projects are you working on now?
I’m writing my second novel, which I am really happy about— it’s a world I am very excited to enter every day. In addition I’m digging through journals I kept when I lived in Athens, and researching a book of nonfiction that I hope to write next year, and also collaborating on a screenplay.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Haeden, New York, Wendy White was a cocktail waitress at a local bar and happy with having her first boyfriend. When she vanished, local law enforcement investigated but never solved her disappearance. The case remains cold while her family grieves their loss. Five months later Wendy's corpse is found. Cleveland reporter Stacy Flynn had been in Haeden looking into the impact of the prime employer a dairy on the environment and a high number of deaths. When Wendy's body is found the journalist believes she has a bigger story. However, no one in the small town will talk to her except to insist an outsider is the killer. Her parents moved with teenage Alice Piper from New York City to Haeden to provide a healthier lifestyle for their offspring. A genius with an upbeat confidence that the locals consider city swagger, she reads the Ohio reporter's article in the Haeden Free Press on the stratospheric amounts of deadly violence against women. Unable to keep her head in the sands as the natives have done, Alice considers who the killing wolf amidst the sheep is. Even when another brutal crime occurs, the locals are severely shaken but still prefer to believe a stranger committed it. This engaging crime thriller looks deeply at cause and effect as the horrific act begets an equally horrific reaction. Once the plot stops switching between 1997-98 and 2007-08-09 (a few chapters in) the story line settles takes off on an exciting dark psychological path. Alice and Stacy separately dig deep into the façade of a safe small-town, whose residents blame a mystical stranger for any acts of violence. Readers will appreciate Cara Hoffman's profound look at a small western New York town through the eyes of two intrepid outsiders. Harriet Klausner
Debut novelist Cara Hoffman takes lots of liberties with our hearts--our fears, our uncertainties, and our repressed desires--in her 2011 novel So Much Pretty. Something happens, finally, in the rundown rural upstate New York town where a journalist slowly accumulates evidence of toxic poisoning by the "family-run" corporate-owned dairy farm that dominates the physical and personal landscape of the town. The town's residents, a little strange but vaguely familiar, are given voice through depositions and interviews recorded during and after an undetermined tragedy, the outline of which we slowly perceive. An unconventional chapter format moves the action forward and backward in time, and from person to person, slowly peeling back our notion of rural placidity to reveal the bloody carcass beneath. Let me be clear: I can not say I actually enjoyed this book. It was unsettling and disturbing, and we see ugly: sometimes human beings act to give individuals short-term gain at the expense of society's long-term health. It introduced us to folks willing to renounce that unequal equation only to confront it's inescapable impact on their lives anyway. But one can almost hear the hiss of insects in a sunny field, see the glint of sunlight on a cool stream, and feel the bump of butterflies on the walls of a hoop house when dispersed by excited children. These things the author gives us in compensation for the awful truth about two young, pretty, innocent swim team schoolgirls.
An extremely well written novel of violence in small town America. A great group of characters.... a great location to set such a violent story. Hoffman feeds you little bits of the main story as you begin to learn more about each of the characters and then delivers a powerful ending. Watch for this one... people will be talking about it.
his has to be one of the creepiest books I have ever read yet, believe it or not, it was almost impossible to put down. Taking place in a small town called Haeden, located in New York state, So Much Pretty is a very sinister and angry story of denial by residents of this small town who know all about the events that have occurred but absolutely refuse to accept or discuss them. Wendy White was a nice country girl who had just moved out of her family home to try independence on for size. Life was good; she had her first real boyfriend and was working her first real job as a waitress at a local bar when she came up missing. Progress by the local police in solving her disappearance doesn't happen and gradually things go back to normal (or a reasonable facsimile) and the case remains unsolved. Stacy Flynn is a reporter who has moved to Haeden from Cleveland, which was heavy with violence and crime. The "bad side of life" is the last thing that Stacy thinks will be a part of her world in the hamlet of Haeden. After all, this is a small town where a dairy farm is the main employer. However, the population of Haeden is made up of families who have lived there for years, and the last thing they want is for an outsider to come into their community and "mess" things up...which is exactly what Stacy is about to do. As she begins working on a story of the environmental impact of the farm, and how runoff from the farm is likely to poison the people and animals who live on the edges of the town, things begin to unravel for the small town and their best kept secret comes to light. Five months after Wendy White disappeared, her body turns up in a ditch near Haeden, and all of a sudden Stacy has another story to investigate. Nobody in town is anxious to speak with her, and the residents who do state unequivocally that Wendy's murderer is definitely not a local. As Stacy delves into the environmental issues and Wendy's disappearance, she starts to become suspicious of the town and it's people. This story, being more than a little confusing, will make the reader go back and forth - at times liking the plot and then disliking it, depending on the chapter. As a debut novel, there was a ton of thought put into the story and characters, which were certainly true to life where small town communities beliefs', loyalties, and politics are concerned. Quill Says: An intelligent and imaginative look at small town life and the ability to overlook the obvious when it suits your purposes.
Cara Hoffman's debut novel, So Much Pretty, is an extraordinarily smart and beautifully written page turner. This suspenseful and highly charged story is of a young woman, Wendy White, who goes missing in the rural town of Haeden in upstate New York. Stacey Flynn, a transplanted reporter from Cleveland, clashes with local townspeople whom she believes know more than they're saying. Alice Piper is the precocious young daughter of transplanted hippies whose idealized dream of country living comes crashing down around them. In no time at all, White's disappearance turns to tragedy and the Piper family is forever changed. Hoffman passionately blends the issue of violence against women that lurks unacknowledged at the dark edges of our culture with a narrative that paints a grim picture of any-town America. Hoffman's literary voice is a force and this novel will leave you reeling.
¿So Much Pretty.¿ An unusual title to a somewhat unusual book. Reading reviews from the USA, where it was released earlier, it appears to be a ¿marmite¿ kind of a novel¿¿..you either love it or hate it. I loved it!Admittedly, it took me a while to get into the story. Frequent changes of characters and switching from the first to the third person with startling regularity, can be confusing to begin with, but I urge readers to stick with it. The story is set in the small town of Haeden, in New York State, the type of place where everybody knows everyone else. A young waitress called Wendy disappears, which unsettles the whole community and the police appear to make no headway in trying to find Wendy¿s whereabouts. Some say she has run away to start a new life in the city. Those who know her well do not buy in to this theory and fear she is dead. Six months later, Wendy¿s body is discovered in the woods and it is obvious that she has been starved and tortured, both physically and sexually. But what is puzzling is the fact she has only been dead a few days. Where has she been all this time? Cara Hoffman builds the suspense brilliantly, and the story unravels through the eyes and experiences of the inhabitants of Haeden and Wendy¿s former school friends. A journalist, wanting to find that ultimate headliner, is relentless in her pursuit of the facts. The book¿s tragic conclusion is totally unexpected and the realisation of what ghastly things have been happening in this small town comes as a shock, to say the least. I was gripped by Hoffman¿s writing and found it hard to put this one down. Although the subject matter is disturbing, a great deal is left to the imagination, and the writer does not revel in violence for violence¿s sake. That elevates this novel beyond a simple whodunit or psychological thriller. Highly recommended for it¿s uniqueness.This book was made available to me for an honest review.
It was way too difficult to write my own synopsis of this book, but even harder to write a review.I read this book over a month ago and I still don't know what I think. Maybe that is a good thing. This was not predictable nor your average mystery. I'm not even sure it fits in that genre. The characters were well-written but I'm not sure how I felt about a lot of them, though they were quite interesting. Especially Alice, she was very unusual and as the book moved from past to present, I had no idea what to expect by the end.Wendy is tenacious and really brings to light to violence against women and the workings of a small-town with their collective heads in the sand.This novel has gotten fantastic reviews. I thought it was thought-provoking, but did I really like it? I still don't know, so I guess you should read it and come back and tell me what you think. This would be great for a book club, better than the usual fare that gives you 5 minutes worth of discussion.
It was creepy, and the ending strained credulity -- after a while, I started skipping the philosophy lessons -- but she does a great job of unfolding her story.
Unfortunately, this book was practically unreadable.The writing is "clever" (a.k.a dense) and full of philosophical commentary (a.k.a "preachy"). Every 3-4 pages is a new "chapter" which involves a change of character speaking and/or a change of timeline. The first 6 chapters change person 6 times (3 different people) and timelines 3 - I think - I had to go back to check every time I started a chapter to see what timeline I was in, and who was talking, because it switches from first person to third person narration too.What is my summary? This book is just way too much work to figure out. I'm sure the plot is great, but I can't be bothered flipping back and forth to keep the characters/time straight. And I don't need someone lecturing me on small-town/feminist politics while telling a story either.
A tragedy that documents the trajectory of a precocious, free-spirited child and the accidental, incidental influences that change the course set by her well-intentioned parents.
Not an easy book to read. The timeline was nearly impossible to follow and parts of the book simply did not make sense. I almost gave up on it. Would have been a good book if it was laid out a little more carefully.
I try not to give FIVE STARS lightly, but, when judging within the genre of the book, you don't really have a choice with this one. There was great usage of jumping back and forth through time, to reveal the story, and the motivations behind it. This is how, when one reflects on one's own mysteries, things are truly revealed in our own lives. Jumping back and forth as pieces of it become relevant and provide us with clues to our own actions. Cara Hoffmann succeeded, not only in delivering a tension-filled plot, but also got you from A to B believably. Once you start to get an inkling of what is going to happen, you wonder how it's going to happen. Most authors settle for a deus ex machina, but SO MUCH PRETTY gets you there believably and organically. I also really liked the usage of "real-life" documents and interviews interspersed within the narrative to add authenticity. When writers can do this effectively, straight-forwardly, it really makes you forget that this isn't really happening. This was done to good effect in WORLD WAR Z. Also, concerning the New York doctor clique, and the reasons for some of them moving to the country, could have been too political, too much of a "message" to insert in a book, but these passages and glimpses stemmed from such a real intelligence and character background, that they contributed to the story. To effectively weave these ideologies in, unlike John Twelve Hawks Traveler Trilogy, is also masterful. Thanks for the ride!
Honestly, I didn't even finish this book. The pace and writing style was strange. I was over halfway through the book and didn't really understand where it was going AT ALL. Most of the chapters were in the past and very confusing to follow. I hoped the further I read, the more I would understand what the hell was going on, but I didn't. I was very disappointed because I read some good reviews on it. I wouldn't recommend to anyone.
Something happened to Wendy and the town seems satisfied to ignore it. Everyone, except Stacy Flynn, is willing to go on with their lives. Flynn is the local journalist but an outsider, her story of Wendy's death causes a chain reaction and Alice is right in the middle. This murder mystery gripped me right from the beginning. I couldn't put the book down! There is a lot of questions raised on justice, ethics and the doing things for the good of human kind. It explores prejudices within communities, touches on environmental issues and is so realistic that I won't be surprised if I picked up the newspaper and read about Wendy White and Alice Piper. The narrative switches from first to third person and from different view points, so the story is fleshed out by all parties. The insertion of the video and audio interviews from some of the minor characters was a great touch and added an extra layer of reality to the book. Cara Hoffman did an excellent job in this debut novel.
I was very disappointed in "So Much Pretty" by the time I reached near the end. In fact, the last thirty pages are unnecessary. I had trouble keeping story lines straight until I realized I needed to pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter. The book would have been more interesting with less about Alice and more about Wendy. To me, there really was no climax. The writing, although tough to follow at times, kept me interested enough to find out more, but I didn't really care by the near end of the book. I'm glad I only borrowed this book and didn't purchase it. It's a shame, since it was recommended and I was really looking forward to reading it.
Loved every second of this book! There were some unanswered questions, but that is the nature if this story.