Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: "So Much Pretty" by Cara Hoffman

In her fiction debut, former investigative reporter Cara Hoffman has written a tremendously affecting and intriguing—if not altogether satisfying—book about life in a small, rural New York town, and how violence causes countless ripples.

Stacy Flynn is an award-winning reporter who moves from Cleveland to rural Haeden, a small town about an hour outside NYC, in search of her next big story. The blue-collar town is dominated by a prosperous dairy, which is owned by a foreign company and run by a powerful family, and it causes a great deal of pollution and illness. But while Stacy thinks the environmental damage will be her mega-story, her focus changes when Wendy White, a 20-year-old waitress born and raised in Haeden, disappears one afternoon. Five months later, Wendy's body is found in a ditch just outside of town, yet no one wants to investigate what might have happened, as everyone (including the local police) insists her killer was a drifter. (As Stacy says, "who even uses the word 'drifter' anymore"?) Frustrated by her inability to solve the mystery of Wendy's disappearance and subsequent murder, she writes a powerful article about violence against women and how it often happens in secret, behind the walls and doors of small towns like Haeden. Stacy's words motivate precocious 15-year-old Alice Piper, a gifted student raised in the town but whose family is still considered "outsiders," to take matters into her own hands.

I found this book very affecting, almost eerie at times, and Hoffman's message about violence against women—and the subsequent actions taken in the story—absolutely threw me for a loop. She has created some amazingly complex characters, although some of the secondary characters are little more than clichés you've seen before. And for someone who reads as much as I do, it takes a lot to surprise me, and some of the plot development that gets related almost in passing came as a complete shock to me. All of that being said, I have two criticisms of So Much Pretty. First, I found the narrative structure, which jumps from narrator to narrator, piece of evidence to piece of evidence, and doesn't follow any concept of time, very confusing. To truly understand where the story was going, I often had to flip back and find out what year the main story was taking place. (This was harder on a Kindle.) My second criticism is that while Stacy's story about violence against women served as such a major catalyst for the plot, we never got to read it, so I felt a little cheated. But still, this story packs a powerful wallop, and I'd love to see this be made into a movie. Tremendously intriguing.

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