SO MUCH PRETTY by Cara Hoffman

Book Quote:

“WHAT community? Is there a COMMUNITY here? Don’t you fucking get it? Are you from fucking Mars? When the average income is fourteen K and the average educational level is eleventh grade and the so-called dairy is a factory fucking farm that employs next to nobody in town, and the Home Depot is where you all fucking work—IF you even work. THAT’S not a community, and it doesn’t become one because people shoot clay pigeons or endearingly call women ‘the missus’ or have fucking parades where they crown a dairy queen! That’s for actors in some anachronistic passion play about a town that never was, in a country that never, ever fucking was.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (APR 11, 2011)

Imagine you are the “outsider” and reporter, Stacy Flynn. You came to this farm town in upstate New York via Cleveland to find the “big-picture” story on rural waste dumping here in off-the-grid Haeden. You’re twenty-four, alert as a cat, keen to pounce like a tiger, with Malcolm X glasses, a postmodern flair, and a Mencken regard. You’ve won an award in the big city, and now that the Rust Belt stories are waning, you seek the newly pelted. But after several years of living among wind-battered farmhouses, tall white flagpoles, crumbled colonials, and broken-down buses, you’re still waiting and suspicious of the omnipotent, industrialized local dairy farm while writing benign pieces about the latent, wall-eyed community.

You languish restively amid the cultural blankness of concrete and caved-in roofs, among the two thousand near-impoverished citizens and the rancid smell of garbage stabbing the air. Menace lurks beneath the folksy façade of the educationally challenged and is carried on the chemical stench of the industrial breeze of its one prosperous family. There is an unacknowledged power that controls its citizens. Here, where suppression and denial is as rooted and contagious as tree rot.

On April 3, 2009, when the naked, sexually brutalized dead body of Wendy White, a nineteen-year-old woman missing for five months, is dumped and subsequently found in a ditch, the meaning is lost on almost everyone. (This isn’t a spoiler–it is the central conceit.) Now, survey the scene. Here is Flynn’s story of toxic transgression, but the townspeople aren’t talking, or they’re talking trash and no one is listening. While people congregate on corners and slink into bars, the police promise they are “pursuing all avenues.” The tight-knit community behaves with boilerplate banality and assumes that it must be a drifter or brought on by a cult of anarchists, the hippies who live here and their ilk of “environmental terrorists.” The people hang onto apocryphal evidence as gospel. Now the town is praying for Wendy White, and the school observes a moment of silence.

More silence?

Alice Piper is a gifted teen and former swim teammate of Wendy. She is the sixteen-year-old daughter of the widely mistrusted and misconceived Pipers, Gene and Claire, who left their profession as physicians years ago to live a quiet self-sustainable life here in Haeden. They sought a place to reconcile their radical ideologies with the realities of the corporate industrial complex. The Pipers raised Alice to question authority–and to examine–not just see, and to engage–not just comply. Alice, like Flynn, can’t simply mourn, move on, and accept an unsolved murder.

The fragmented form of the narrative mirrors the manifest structure of denial, and the gradual revealing of the facts incite the implacable cries of protest. The chapters seem jarring and incongruous at first, detached, non-linear, occupied with unreliable details, specious facts, and compromised evidence. But it reflects the process that Flynn goes through as an investigative reporter, receiving piles of unredacted evidence–exhibits, historical research, interviews, letters, school papers, and chronicles. The reader, like Flynn, is the source of the redaction. What materializes from the inchoate fog is the reader as character and fierce examiner of truth. The view from the pages is malignant and bracing. And that? That is the genius of the author, Cara Hoffman, who appeared to lock me out at the beginning but gripped me in its claw by the end.

This isn’t a genre police procedural or conventional crime thriller. There’s blood, but it’s not gratuitous, and there’s violence, but not in a vacuum. The everyday sexploitation in headlines and entertainment is exposed, like a raw nerve, and examined, with a naked eye, but not directly in the text in bankrupt slogans and empty bromides. It’s finessed, as a corollary, not milked with pithy epiphanies. If anything, it is turned on its head. The desensitization of civilization results from decades of overgrazing in the vicarious thrill of the kill. The assault on our now denuded senses is acute. We know it. Even as we seek more, we feel less. And that is what Cara Hoffman understands. She doesn’t condescend, she weeps. And so did I. And so will you.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 68 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster (March 15, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other literary crime stories:


April 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Mystery/Suspense, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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