We Could Be Beautiful

We Could Be Beautiful

by Swan Huntley

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A spellbinding psychological debut novel, Swan Huntley's We Could Be Beautiful is the story of a wealthy woman who has everything—and yet can trust no one.

Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she'll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine's parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer's), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth's old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: "We cannot trust anyone . . . " Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385540605
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 187,113
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

SWAN HUNTLEY earned her MFA from Columbia University. She's received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ragdale Foundation. She lives in California and Hawaii.

Read an Excerpt


I wanted a family.

I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

I was also a really good person. I volunteered at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving; I paid my housekeeper well and on time. I was a good sister, a good daughter. I had been a pretty good student. I’d gone to Sarah Lawrence and then NYU. I had substance. I was conscientious. I’d seen enough documentaries to make me a vegetarian. I voted. I recycled. I tipped generously. I gave money to homeless people on the street. I gave extra to gypsy mothers, their sooty babies, always sleeping, maybe drugged, hanging heavy from their necks in hammocks made from ratty T‑shirts.

But despite my good deeds and my good fortune, I felt incomplete. I had always felt incomplete, even as a small child. I have a memory of myself, age four, cheek pressed against the cold black smoky design of the bathroom tiles, my hot breath fogging the smooth marble, thinking, I am dead. I am dead but I am alive. I am dead and this is a dream.

That I didn’t have a family yet wasn’t for a lack of trying. I felt I had always been trying. I’d been engaged twice. I’d had a million boyfriends, and even one girlfriend, but none of them had stuck. I tended to like addicts. Maybe by definition those people didn’t stick around--they were always running, that was their nature. I also tended to like poor people, impoverished sculptors like Jim, who were a little too desperate for my good sheets and my big TV screens and my masseur, who came once a week.

There was something about having money that made the incompleteness sharper. If you were broke, it was an excuse for almost everything. You couldn’t afford to fix the shower, so it kept leaking. You didn’t have time for friends or exercise or charity. You were always working because you had to work, and work was the best excuse for your misery.

If you had money, you had no excuse. And people didn’t feel sorry for you either. Instead they decided not to like you before they even knew you. They said, If you’re sad, can’t you buy a new house somewhere, can’t you take a trip? Don’t you have so many choices, so many resources? They said, We’re not stupid and we know you can’t buy happiness, but we also know you sort of can, too, because money means choices and choices mean you don’t have the limits that we do, and that means you should shut up now and be happy. Look at everything you have--it’s limitless.

And those people were right. It was limitless. I got a headache just thinking about how limitless it was. If you could afford any end table in the world, how could you be sure you were getting the right one? If you could go anywhere, where would you go? And in what order? And for how long? If you had any goals at all, why had you not attained them? If you hadn’t attained them, it wasn’t because you were broke, it was because you had failed.

And so it was that I felt not only incomplete but also like a failure. I went to the Gala for Contemporary Folk Art that night not because I really wanted to, or because I had planned on meeting anyone. I went because I had promised Susan I would go, and I was a good friend who kept my promises.

Wineglass between just-manicured (always manicured) fingers, I stood in the pool of people, looking up at this enormous tapestry. Buttery light, the clinking of glass, low polite voices, one person laughing too loud. Men in tuxedos pressed and crisp and smelling slightly of the dry-cleaning bags they’d been taken out of just before, and women in gowns that made them look like jellyfish, their hair coiffed into oceanic shapes. I wore white, which is funny to think about now. Of course I wore white. All I wanted was to be married, and that want was obvious, subliminal, cellular--it was in everything I did, whether I knew it or not.

The tapestry was big, as big as a swimming pool, and so intricate, all those tiny pulls of string. It was a modern triptych, three panels in brilliant colors, almost neon: a woman floating in water, a woman standing on land, a woman curled at the foot of a mountain. It was beautiful and depressing and overwhelming and all I could think was, I am forty-three years old and I am alone and where the hell is Susan?

Of course it was just when I’d decided to leave and go home and curl up in bed that I saw him. A stunning, square-jawed man with gentle eyes and elegant gray hair, full and parted to the side. He made his way closer until he was standing beside me. We watched the tapestry like it was a movie. We said nothing to each other for what felt like a long time. There was something familiar about him. Maybe he looked like an actor, or maybe he was just one of those people who looked familiar to everyone, or maybe his dry-cleaned scent reminded me of home.

“It’s nice to see you,” he said finally. His voice was smooth and cool, like metal, brilliantly polished. He held out his hand. On his pinkie was a ring, a turquoise stone on a tarnished silver band. That intrigued me. It seemed out of place and special. It suggested a character.

“Do I know you?”

“William Stockton.”

“Catherine West.”

I remember his hand felt as smooth and as cool as his voice. I remember thinking, There is something about this guy, there is some kind of electricity between us. It was big, enormous, unavoidable. From the very beginning it felt like a current pulling me blissfully toward a whirlpool. Before you drown, the spinning just feels like a dance.


William Stockton and I had never met, but it turned out our families had been friends. “In fact,” he was saying, “I believe I remember your mother pregnant, and it must have been you she was pregnant with.”

It was three days after the gala, a night that had ended in Susan never showing (the flu) and William buying the huge tapestry, and taking my phone number, and calling to ask me out for this coffee we were now having in the park, very near William’s new apartment on Seventy-Eighth Street--he’d just moved back from Switzerland--and also near my childhood apartment on Eighty-Fourth, where William had apparently visited “more than once.”

“If she was pregnant with me, we must have just missed each other.” I twirled my long chocolate-colored hair around my fingers. The plan was to mesmerize him, and I was pretty sure it was working. More softly, I said, “Ships in the night.”

“Uncanny.” When William smiled, the lines around his mouth creased. Those were the only real lines on his face. His skin was strangely intact for a man of his age. It glistened, lightly bronzed, almost golden. And his hair. Despite being gray, it was silky, well conditioned. It bounced with just the right amount of bounce as we walked.

It was a warm Saturday in May, the first real warm day after what had felt like the longest winter of my life, and I was feeling alive, finally alive, and also kind of overstimulated. It was my bare exposed skin, which hadn’t seen light for so long--I felt almost naked in my summery dress--and it was the buzz from the coffee, and it was this man: this handsome, extremely tall, extremely independently wealthy man who was articulate and Old World in a way that didn’t seem contrived, and who knew me--not me personally, but he knew my family, and in this way we shared a history. We came from the same place. I trusted him immediately.

He had brought his dog, Herman, a long-haired dachshund with gold-brown hair that curled slightly at the ends, very cute. As we veered from the asphalt onto the curving dirt path, under the shadows of tree branches, their outstretched limbs begging for sun, children stopped to pet Herman, and William was very sweet with every one of them, lingering patiently, saying, “This is Herman, and what is your name?”

We passed a group of young boys building something with sticks, and a lesbian couple on a plaid blanket, eating scooped-out cantaloupe balls from a dewy Ziploc bag like they were really in the wilderness. A line of little preschoolers in bright white shirts moved like a twinkling diamond bracelet over the knoll. Someone far away was flying a kite shaped like a fish.

It smelled like grass and dirt, and in certain moments, when we walked closely enough together, there was the faint trace of William’s clean, salt-dipped scent. I would never figure out exactly what that scent was--maybe the combination of his hair products and his detergent and the aftershave he used, and the unique way it reacted with his skin. Vaguely it reminded me of a hotel where I’d stayed on the Amalfi coast when I was thirteen and still obsessed with pasta Bolognese.

We were talking, of course, about what he remembered. “Let’s see,” he said, sipping the last of his coffee and stepping in front of me (“Pardon me, Catherine”) to throw it in the wiry basket, which prompted me to do the same, even though my coffee was still basically full; I’d been too overstimulated to drink it. “I remember the stone lions by the door--not replicas because they were missing facial features--and of course the plants. There were so many plants.”

“Yes--oh my God. Those plants are what everyone remembers, it’s so funny.” My mother loved her plants--she could almost have been called a hoarder of them. Ferns lined the walls, succulents lined the windowsills, and roses (always roses) were a mandatory centerpiece on every table. She spent a good deal of time explaining to her assistants (she called them all assistants, whether they were housekeepers or nannies or decorators) what her plant visions were, and kept a list for the florist alongside a grocery list in the kitchen drawer. Her collection of plants was the one way in which my mother diverged from her typical Upper East Side existence. It may have been the only eccentric thing about herself she let people see.

“It was nearly a forest, wasn’t it?”

“It was. Especially in the fountain room. The running water made it more forestlike. Do you remember that?”

William squinted into the sun. His skin was so smooth. And his lips were just pink enough, just full enough. “Yes,” he said, nodding, “yes, of course, how could I have forgotten that? It was a stone fountain, wasn’t it? Like the lions, it was made of stone that had been worn away outside, by wind and rain. Do I correctly recall cherubs?”

“Yes! I thought they were so scary as a kid because they had no pupils.”

“I also remember the bathroom with the yellow walls,” he said. “I very distinctly recall its mustard color.”

“The mustard bathroom, yes!”

“And the reclining chair your father loved.”

“Yes. Oh my God, this is so crazy. You know so much about my life and I only just met you. It’s crazy.”

I probably said “It’s crazy” twenty times. Although as we kept talking, I realized that maybe it wasn’t so crazy. People in New York knew each other, and apparently not only had our mothers been involved in a lot of the same art organizations, our fathers had both been close to Pierre Mallet, the reclusive artist who lived in the Catskills with too many dogs. I remembered Pierre, of course, though not well because he rarely came to the city. What I remembered most clearly was that every time Pierre’s name came up, my mother said, “He needs to quit smoking. He is going to die.”

William’s father, Edward Stockton, had also been an artist, William told me, “though he never achieved fame or money, which was a shame--he wanted those things very badly.” He and Pierre had collaborated on many projects, including a series of orblike sculptures, one of which my parents had bought and put in the living room.

“I didn’t realize that was your father’s sculpture!” I remembered it exactly. It looked like a planetary system, with all white planets and one blue one, which bore a red X. I recalled many afternoons spent lazing on the couch, looking at that X and wondering what it meant.

“In part it was, yes,” William said. “I believe it was Pierre who introduced our fathers initially.”

“What happened to Pierre?”

“He passed away some years ago,” William said. “Lung cancer.”

Based on his choice of outfit for a weekend walk in the park (blue dress shirt buttoned to the neck, dark khaki pants, tight brown leather shoes), I was not surprised to find out William was a banker. He’d spent a long time at UBS and now worked at a small investment bank downtown, way downtown, south of Wall Street, at the very tip of the island. My initial response to this was: No. I had gone out of my way not to date finance guys because I didn’t want to end up marrying my father, who had worked too hard and died too young, and also because I just thought finance was boring. But William didn’t seem boring to me. The turquoise ring: he wasn’t a typical banker. It also helped when he said, “I enjoy my job very much,” and I actually believed him. The way he spoke--he was so charismatic. He could have sold water to the ocean.

“I sometimes wonder if it was your father who inspired me into this position,” he said. “In my youth I was surrounded by bohemians, and your father . . . well, he was different. He made an impression. He was so very powerful--the way he dressed and the way he spoke.”

I said, “Thank you. Yes, he was,” and I remember I got the feeling that William could have been describing himself just then. The shine of his Italian shoes reminded me of something my father said often: “A great man’s shoes should always be polished.”

We walked for a long time, going through the requisite first-date stuff. School, family, hobbies. Favorite foods, vacation spots, whether or not Starbucks had good coffee. I was so rapt by everything he said and by his cool way of saying it that I looked up at one point and realized I didn’t even know where we were in the park.

Reading Group Guide

1. How do you feel about Catherine as a character? Do these feelings change as the book progresses? If so, how?

2. Catherine says that people don’t feel sorry for you if you have money. Did you feel sorry for Catherine when she starts to lose hers?

3. Money defines Catherine’s life in obvious external ways. How does define the way in which she sees herself on an internal level?

4. How does Catherine begin to see herself differently through her relationship with Susan? Why does Catherine question this friendship?

5. Catherine is very concerned with the idea of being a good person. Do you think she’s a good person?

6. Are Catherine and her mother similar? If so, in what ways?

7. What is it about Dan that Catherine finds so appealing?

8. Why does Catherine ignore William’s odd behavior? Why does she ignore her mother’s negative reaction when William’s name is mentioned?

9. In what ways has Catherine changed by the end of the novel?

10. What do you think is the meaning of the title “We Could Be Beautiful”?

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