Thursday, April 14, 2011

Trouble in the Heartland: So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman

By the time I reached page 20 of So Much Pretty, I started to think Cara Hoffman was flagrantly breaking the law which cautions fiction writers to "show don't tell."  Though they're engaging and cleanly-written, the early pages of her debut novel are heavy with exposition and there is a lot of authorial "telling."

By page 220, I was convinced that So Much Pretty couldn't have been written any other way and is, in fact, a book to be praised for the way it tells more than it shows.  The pages are heavy (and occasionally heavy-handed) with characters narrating how they feel and what they think and obliquely describing what's happening in the world around them.  This is a smart way to structure a story that is, for all its appearance of a mystery-thriller, really a novel of ideas.  So Much Pretty opens its arms to hug some pretty big themes--the depravity of mankind, the lost Utopia of rural living, the moral cost of single-handedly trying to cleanse society of sin, and the creeping rot of rumor in small towns--but at every turn Hoffman manages to turn social commentary into a gripping, white-knuckled read.

Set in the fictional upstate New York town of Haeden, So Much Pretty revolves around the disappearance of Wendy White, a well-liked hometown girl in her early 20s.  We've seen this sort of thing before in other books, movies and every third episode of Dateline: a woman goes missing, a family mourns, the case goes cold.  It's a sad sub-genre of fiction which is all too often happening in real life outside the covers of a book.  But in her fierce, fiery telling of Haeden's latest crime, Hoffman makes this entry into Abduction Lit all her own, dissecting the case in ways that even Stewart O'Nan's excellent Songs for the Missing* failed to do.

So Much Pretty is layered with testimony from characters, shifting points of view, flashbacks, and pieces of forensic evidence.  Throughout the novel, we move from head to head like a parabolic mic, picking up conversations.  Though there are dozens of characters, the central figures seem to be the Pipers--Gene, Claire and their precocious daughter Alice--who leave promising medical careers in New York City to come live in small-town, small-minded Haeden.  Thinking they can start fresh with a back-to-earth mentality, Gene and Claire tap into the counterculture fringe element of Haeden and soon everyone is sitting around talking about organic farming and social anarchy.  The Pipers are idealists to a fault.
Haeden was being collectively dreamed by its inhabitants, Gene thought.  And in a way, it was a beautiful thing.  He and Claire wanted to be part of that collective dreaming, the most recent reinvention of getting back to the land.  And they had every intention of making it work.
For the Pipers, Haeden represents something it never was.  We all dream of the heartland Eden—a place with Norman Rockwell Main Streets, pie socials at the community center, happy neighbors waving across perfect lawns, kids sledding down a hill in winter and fathers scooping them up from the snowbank with unrestrained laughter.  In reality, we all know the only map where we'll find this place is the one we've drawn in our imaginations.  The Pipers think they're fitting in to the cozy community, but they're not; people are staring and people are talking.

Another newcomer on the social outskirts of the town is Stacy Flynn, a reporter who leaves her job in Cleveland to take over the one-person operation of the Free Press: "I felt my future as a 1940s-style muckraker was secure.  All I needed was the sleeve garters and a drinking problem."  Flynn hopes to dig up an expose on pollution (the town is home to a large manure farm), but what she finds instead is even more troubling.  The poison is not in the soil, it's in the people.  And yet, the reporter greets it all with a hard wall of cynicism:
The situation with White was not at all uncommon.  People disappear and then reappear as corpses.  That's how you get your chops.  You see a dead person, and it sets you apart whether you like it or not.  Then the getting over it; the fact that on occasion it constitutes something positive for you professionally.
In this heavily-populated novel, Flynn is the character with whom we most easily identify.  She's free of the Pipers' idealism and she hasn't yet fallen into the dull complacency of Haeden's other residents.  When the truth about Wendy White's disappearance finally comes to light, we share Flynn's bitter nausea.

Hoffman even devotes a few chapters to Wendy's perspective.  In just a couple of scenes, we get a smartly-observed portrait of a girl who seems to be happy living in the place where she grew up. "It's not that big a deal to leave the place you're from anymore," she tells a friend. "Everybody does that. It's more unusual to stay in your hometown—especially if it's been your family's hometown for a hundred years."  And yet, inwardly she longs to leave:
Sometimes, out walking on Sunday with the girls and Beth Ann, Wendy had the urge to throw all her things in the river.  All her things—her purse, her schoolbooks, her stupid jewelry, her shoes—she wanted to stand there at the bridge and drop everything, watch it go by in the current until she was free, not free of Haeden but of some person Haeden expected her to be and that she hadn't been strong enough to resist.

And then there's Alice. We see her progress from a little girl who loves swinging on the trapeze her father set up for her in the barn to a high school sophomore at the top of her class (IQ of 158), the captain of the school swim team, do-gooder volunteer at the local hospital.  Her mother tells us:
Alice was a remarkably consistent soul.  Healthy and athletic like her father.  At home wherever she was.  Happy at school and happy with all the things outside of school.  Gymnastics and trapeze.  And later, swimming, building, archery, shooting.  Her focus was so joyful, so intense.
Simmering beneath that perfect exterior is another person altogether.  As So Much Pretty builds to its shattering conclusion, Alice becomes the fulcrum of the plot and takes the story in a new, frightening direction.

The mystery at the heart of So Much Pretty exposes itself gradually, and in a complex interweave of flashbacks and voices which eventually come across like sound-bites from a 48 Hours Mystery episode.  Hoffman has built a puzzle for the reader and if there's one fault to be found with the novel it's in how the chapters move jarringly from one time period to another with only the occasional date in the heading to orient the action.  The chronology of the book circles and zigs and zags and readers might find themselves thumbing back through the pages to see how it all fits together.

I suspect some of that confusion might be deliberate on Hoffman's part.  It's as if she's put us in the gumshoes of a detective staring down at all the scrambled fragments of evidence littering his desk, knowing the enormity of the crime and wondering how to piece it all together.  There are no easy answers.  It's hard to walk away from So Much Pretty without feeling troubled by how the story is resolved.  In her impressive first novel, Hoffman rips a story from the daily headlines and turns it inside-out to expose the wormy innards of a society that has lost its moral compass.

With its ethical questions, this might just be the best book-club selection of the year.  If a smart novel can give readers food for thought, then So Much Pretty serves up a feast.  People will be talking about this one for a long, long time.

*A novel which I personally loved and championed elsewhere on the web.

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