Small towns are well regarded in America as bastions of community and helpfulness, but I've never really shared that feeling, particularly after living in several big cities. When you're from a small town, something awful happens where some of the people you know and love are also racists and misogynists and homophobics - it's hard to square. Anyway, I've just never agreed with this pastoral nonsense about the good people of small towns - small towns are full of assholes and criminals, just like any other place, but due to poverty and lower education levels - maybe more.
Cara Hoffman sets her mystery, So Much Pretty, in a small town in upstate New York. It's a low-income area, where people are perceived to be farmers, but in fact the largest employer is a big box store. The local dairy is polluting the land. A girl is found dead on the side of the road.
The story unfolds very slowly. Wendy is found dead, and, piecemeal, you find out about her history. It's told from the perspective of various characters. Another family, the Pipers, mixes with Wendy's. They moved from NYC to find that peaceful sanctuary of the small town and raise their daughter, Alice. Early in the book, you discover that something is going to happen to Alice, or that maybe she's done something awful - it's hard to believe she might have something to do with Wendy's death, because the more you get to know her, the more charming and brilliant she seems.
A journalist, Stacy Flynn, has been trying to find Wendy since she went missing. She's a great character that reminded me a lot of Claire deWitt in the other book I just finished, Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead. She reads like a dude - I love that Hoffman didn't bind her by gender roles.
I couldn't put this book down - I read it in two sittings. It haunted by thoughts for about 4 days and a week or so later, it's still heavy on my mind. I'm about to drop some major spoilers now, so, stop now if you're intrigued enough to read it, or don't mind spoilers...
Major spoilers. Everything...
When you find out what happened to Wendy, it's terrible. It's worse when you find out out the book is loosely based on an actual case of an 11-year old girl who was gang-raped by adult members of her "community" in Texas. (Here's the original story in the NYT, which later required an apology for lacking balance.) The chapter where Alice unravels what happened mirrors the reader's experience. She's shocked, horrified, scared, and she wants to do something. "It would hardly be rational to accept that I live inside a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide, and then wait in line to rape." Alice, being a supremely rational, thoughtful person, decides that the only way to resolve not just this crime, but to make a stand against further crimes against women, is to kill the men that she knew were involved and let their deaths stand as a warning to others: this is what happens. So, Alice becomes a school shooter (I think she's a junior in HS) and a murderer. It was shocking reading it, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting - and came as such a surprise. Girls don't commit school shootings.
I read some of Hoffman's blog and other work after I finished the book. (Here's a good interview.) She's obviously like, a genius, and has some extremely well-reasoned things to say about violence toward women in our culture. She's angry, understandably, and doesn't back away from that - I think a lot of people don't appreciate art or thought that comes from a place of anger, particularly from a woman. I appreciate that she stands behind her anger and her feelings because it's a natural reaction, and women are entitled to be angry, and, aside from that, fury seems to be a pretty good impetus for making art. There's a scene in her book that shook me as much as some of the more outwardly violent ones - the journalist's predecessor at the newspaper is upset about something she's done and comes to do some mansplaining to her, but she won't hear it. "And he knew then that people were right about her being ethnic of some kind. He sat down because he wanted to hit her or grab her, and he felt that if he remained standing, he might do it, and then he would be charged with assault." The idea that this person was so upset with her that he had to sit down to keep himself from hitting her is a perfect example of how quick some men are to jump to violence that they have to fight to "keep themselves" from a physical response. And I can't tell you how many times I've felt men look like that at me over some small argument, clenching their fists and sputtering and stalking, talking themselves down from... what? Punching me?
I don't advocate violence, in any way, in fact, I'm so anti-gun I don't even think hunters should have guns. They can shoot with bows and arrows. I really don't like the idea of vigilante justice. So, I don't accept Alice's actions as a rational choice, but she makes a fairly convincing argument - that horrifies me. I guess that's what's been on my mind since I read this book - that violence toward women is so pervasive that nothing less than an armed revolution will solve it. But, today, Martin Luther King Day, I choose to believe that peaceful resistance is the only protest that works. It works unbearable slowly, but, eventually, it works.