Pretty Is - Maggie Mitchell

Pretty Is is a fictional survivor's tale of childhood abduction and living with the aftermath. It's not a particularly inspiring subject, and one that you would imagine has been well-documented in fiction and non-fiction literature alike. Maggie Mitchell's debut novel however has an unusual and surprisingly clever literary take on the subject that makes it work exceptionally well as a psychological study and as a thriller, with a little bit of a self-reflexive take on the nature of writing and adapting material to fiction.

The first thing that is unusual about Pretty Is is how two 12 year-old girls are taken from their small-town lives in Connecticut and Nebraska; both girls seem to willingly accept the ride from a stranger, the first abducted girl Carly Mae even playing her part in encouraging the second girl Lois to come along. The nature of what happens when they are taken to a remote cabin in the woods by the man inevitably has a major impact on their lives almost 20 years later, but just as troubling to both girls is how they have to come to terms with their own untypical reactions to their abduction and their abductor.

The most pertinent question that runs through their minds obviously is, why them? One significant factor that can't be discounted is the fact that both girls were exceptionally pretty at 12 years-old. Lois now a university lecturer, Carly Mae an actress going under the name of Chloe, as well as facing up to difficult questions related to their childhood abduction, both still also have to come to terms with their looks. Although they haven't met each other since the incident, the past they have been struggling to put behind them inevitably catches up with them, partly through the actions of an inquisitive, creepy student who starts stalking Lois at the university.

Beauty is power. That's a complex and controversial line to weave into a story about child abduction, but Maggie Mitchell does it insightfully and meaningfully with tremendous precision and clarity. Although there are a few convenient connections established - Carly Mae looking to star in a film adaptation of the semi-fictional book that Lois has written about their abduction - it seems to arise naturally out of the situations of both women, providing fascinating insights not only on what it means to be a pretty woman, but how other people relate to pretty women too. Mitchell's 'voice' for Lois and Chloe also feels right, their respective attitudes and ways of reacting to their nature and their shared past also feeling absolutely authentic.

The book is remarkably well structured to encompass all the various levels it works on and in how it successfully brings them together, even providing a seemingly full account of their captivity in an excerpt from Lois's book. Other literary works related to the girls circumstances are brought in, hinting at how abduction theory is historically treated in literature, but even the nature of writing about the event and turning it into a film is used meaningfully to explore questions related towards the convenient and sometimes necessary truths and fictions we make of our lives. Even the fact of Lois preparing a sequel says much about how she wants to find a new life for herself that puts the past into context and allows her to create a new identity in order to move forward.

Although you could read it that way with such clever post-modern devices, all these other levels are only there beneath the surface, enriching the novel certainly, its intelligence making it a cut above similar genre material, but it is still primarily a thriller. Pretty Is is a clever, psychological drama, one with strong, authentic character exploration and development, one with real literary qualities, but at heart it's still a thriller. As a thriller then it's only as good as its ending, and Pretty Is doesn't disappoint on that or indeed on any other level.

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