Pretty Is, written by Maggie Mitchell, is a mix of intriguing, unsettling, and exhilarating. Following two young women who were abducted when they were 12, Pretty Is explores the adult perspectives of Lois and Carly May as they fumble their way through adult life whilst living in the shadow of a past they try to hide.
Nearly 20 years after being abducted, Lois – now an English lecturer – writes a loosely autobiographical novel that is turned into a film. Of course, Carly May is the starring actress expected to replay the summer they were abducted. Despite the abduction being central to the plot of Pretty Is very little is revealed about Zed the abductor or the girls’ time as captors. The reader never learns about Zed’s motives, his intentions, or what he actually does to them. Both protagonists simply recount what they remember from that summer, delivering conflicted perspectives through alternating viewpoints per chapter. As a result, the story has a sense of unreliability – great for a build up of mystery, but frustrating by the end.
The film becomes double layered when one of Lois’ pupils, Sean, discovers her past. With the threat of public exposure lingering, the women are brought together to confront unresolved feelings from the past and a common enemy in the present. Sean has similar characteristics to their abductor – creepy as hell and an embodiment of conspiracy. I thought this was a great move by Maggie Mitchell as his construction brings the story into the here and now, saving the story from becoming too embedded in a history that the reader cannot access. Despite filler description about the characters and the narcissistic tendencies that transpire from all three, Maggie Mitchell keeps her creations distanced from the reader. This is a quiet success for the author, having created characters so clearly tinged by their own issues and psychoses that they become untouchable and mysterious.
Organised into four parts, Pretty Is is a fast-paced novel that I found hard to put down. Pretty Is consistently feels like it is leading to a monumental climax, a tease that meant I couldn’t get through the pages quick enough. As I raced towards the ending, trying to pursue the truth about what happened to the girls in their past and trying to uncover Sean’s responsibility for their future, I eventually found the finish line was empty and my victory was in vain.
The ending, which brings all three characters together, feels rushed and unexplored. I feel that Pretty Is could accomplish fantastic things if only it were structured a little differently. The end events belong to a climax, which would have given Maggie Mitchell time to unravel the mysteries that are never answered. It is not fair to say the story finishes on a cliffhanger, but equally, there is too much left unresolved. Seemingly, genres become blurred and the amount of conventions used towards the plot’s end leaves causes confusion.
Pretty Is leaves me with a desire to read on, but this is simply outweighed by general dissatisfaction. What happens to Sean? What happened during that summer 20 years ago? Although thoroughly enjoyable, the implausibility of the plot and the mixing of genres only reiterate that this is a debut novel. The author has a lot of potential, if only she decides what she wants her writing to do.
Thanks to Sam Eades at Orion Books for sending me a proof copy.