Book Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

The summer Lois and Carly May were 12 years old, they were abducted by a charismatic stranger and held in a remote cabin in the mountains of upstate New York for six weeks before being rescued. Twenty years later, Lois is a literature professor at a small college and the author of a thriller based on her abduction, written under a pseudonym, and Carly May has reinvented herself as an actress in Los Angeles. After two decades of silence, the two women are brought back together when Carly May, acting under a stage name, lands a part in a movie based on Lois’s book. Reunited on the film’s set, they must work out their complicated relationship and their unresolved feelings about the man who kidnapped them.

This kind of ripped-from-the-headlines story is irresistible, and Maggie Mitchell takes a really interesting approach to the girls’ abduction; mixed in with the trauma of being held in an unfamiliar place with a strange, enigmatic man is a surprising pleasure — that they have been chosen, that their difficult or dissatisfying lives have been interrupted with a grand adventure. It’s a really complex dynamic — both between the two girls and between them and their kidnapper — and it’s fascinating to see how they have dealt with the fallout for most of their lives.

If Pretty Is had stayed within these bounds, I would have loved it. However, Mitchell inserts a thriller component that feels out of place. Before going to meet Carly May, Lois is working on a sequel to her moderately-selling thriller when events in her life take on an eerie parallel to the story she is inventing. At times, it felt delightfully mind-bending, but mostly it felt forced and wasn’t resolved very well; I think the novel would have been stronger without it, and it lowered my rating a bit on Goodreads.

Overall, Pretty Is is a decent novel to take camping or to read on the beach this summer, especially for fans of Room by Emma Donoghue. It thoughtfully handles some really interesting relationships, and the thriller angle gives it the pulpy quality of a summer vacation read.

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