“So Much Pretty is a fearless first novel,” announced The New York Times Book Review, “for all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain.”
Set in a rural community steeped in silence and denial, So Much Pretty explores all parents’ greatest fear, that their child will be hurt. But it also examines a second, equally troubling question: What if my child hurts someone else? The disappearance and murder of nineteen-year-old Wendy White is detailed through the eyes of journalist Stacy Flynn and a host of other richly drawn characters, each with their own secrets and convictions. After Wendy’s body is found, Flynn’s intense crusade to expose a killer draws the attention of a precocious local girl, Alice Piper, whose story intertwines with Wendy’s in a spellbinding and unexpected climax.
This reading group guide forSo Much Pretty includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
So Much Pretty is a novel about family, community, and storytelling. The Pipers are a family built on optimism and on a deep-rooted commitment to community. Claire and Gene have moved with their precocious, beguiling daughter, Alice, to Haeden, New York, for a fresh start and to give Alice the freedom and opportunity they have always wanted for themselves. In doing so, they will unwittingly rewrite the story of her life. Stacey Flynn is a reporter, both a seeker and teller of stories. It is Flynn, gritty, relentless, and ultimately reckless, who will piece together the mysterious disappearance of a local girl, Wendy White—rebuilding her existence from all available fragments and forging a path to the truth.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The story’s prologue is an ominous introduction. How does this dark overture—focused on searching out something that isn’t easily found— frame the story?
2. Describe Claire and Gene Piper’s relationship. How did having Alice affect them, especially in comparison to their doctor friends? Do you consider them to be happy?
3. We know from the start that Alice Piper will end up in some kind of trouble, though we don’t learn what it is until later. How does knowing (and not knowing) affect your view of her as the story unfolds?
4. Stacy Flynn says she sees a vast emptiness in Haeden. What drew her there besides just a big story? Was she looking for emptiness or a blank canvas?
5. The idea of things not being what they appear to be is a constant theme throughout the novel, such as when Gene Piper muses that “people would continue to use words like ‘farm’,’ forest’, and ‘town’ long after the words no longer fit the reality of the landscape.” (21) He thinks “Haeden was being collectively dreamed by its inhabitants.” What does he mean? Does this apply just to Haeden, or is there a greater significance to the idea?
6. Michelle Mann tells her friend, “It is the duty of every intelligent person to pay attention to the obvious. (4)” In what ways do the Piper idealism and the townspeople’s fixed ideas cause them to miss things that are right in front of them? What are the things they miss?
7. Flynn is suspicious that Alex Dino, the police chief, knows more about Wendy White’s death than he is admitting. Is this Flynn’s desire for intrigue, or just a suspicion? What does the answer turn out to be?
8. Wendy White didn’t want to leave Haeden or go to college. Was money the only reason she stayed while her friends left? What else kept her there?
9. After White’s death, Flynn describes Haeden’s reaction: “The silence feels like calm. But it’s a point beyond rage.” (59) What is Flynn saying here? Is there truth behind it?
10. How do Flynn’s attitude and outlook change after living in Haeden and dealing with its residents? In what ways does she remain the same?
11. The novel is a pastiche of different parts of the characters: letters, audio files, and Alice’s school papers. Why does the author include these? In what ways do they add to the story for you? What do these pieces say about Alice as she grows older?
12. The story is full of contradictions: Gene not approving of his friend Constant’s pharmaceutical career, though the money supports his family; the police investigating many angles except for White’s boyfriend; the family with the oldest ties to the community poisoning the land and acting as a subsidiary of a large corporation. What do you think these contradictions say about Haeden and its residents?
13. When Theo moves away, why does he think Alice won’t be okay without him? How does he think using their secret play world would protect them?
14. Alice describes the butterflies as “camouflaged as one thing—so they could one day be another”. (162) What larger symbolism does this have in connection to the story?
15. Gene and Claire wanted to live off the grid; how does this affect them as parents? Was the decision fair to Alice? Did they give her too much space, or not enough?
16. Discuss the author’s use of pacing and how it affects the story’s tension. How does the story move as the tension builds?
17. Do you agree with Alice’s final actions? Although legally wrong, was she morally correct?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOKCLUB
Become a journalist like Flynn and write some fictitious stories about the characters you’ve met in the novel, or write about people in your own community.
Alice loved The Wind in the Willows. Devote some time at the end of your club meeting to discussing this classic of children’s literature.
After they are separated, Alice and Theo correspond by letters. Whom did you write letters to when you were young? Why not reconnect with an old friend using paper and pen?
Violence against women is a key component of the story. Volunteer at a local women’s shelter or crisis line, or raise funds for these organizations with your fellow book club members. You can get more information on how to become involved at the following websites:
You come from upstate New York yourself. How much of this story is autobiographical?
The landscape, the dialect, and the cultural sensibilities depicted in So Much Pretty are certainly based on many years of observation and straight reportage. Haeden is based on a real town upstate, a place where the cultural divide is pronounced and complex. The autobiographical elements of the book are disparate. Obviously I share a number of traits with the character Stacy Flynn and have worked on the kinds of stories she covers in the book, but as with all authors, there are various elements of my personal experiences seeded throughout the novel. Upstate New York is an interesting place—the aura of a Grimm’s Fairy tale hangs about it.
The story is based on a real case. Why did you want to write about such a difficult topic? What type of research did you do?
So Much Pretty was inspired by one specific case, but in reality the circumstances are extremely common. I wanted to write about this topic because I feel that we are inundated with violence and it becomes something that drives our aesthetics, becomes entertaining— especially sexual, predatory violence. We’re told that these things are shocking, but really they are very common. There is a banality and a predictability to it all; the disappearance, the search, and the inevitable discovery of a dead woman or girl, who has nearly without exception been sexually assaulted. When I was a young reporter working for a small independent publication and writing about this topic, I was shocked by how easy it was for people to be scandalized and vicariously thrilled and somehow vindicated by the sexual assault and murder of a person, a member of the community, because of gender. As for research, I immersed myself in archives and online sources and read several hundred—probably close to a thousand—accounts of women killed by partners, strangers, and family members. And I had primary source material from interviews I’d done in my early twenties as part of a story I‘d worked on. Every week that I was researching for the book, more cases would pop up in the national and local news as they always do: Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, the sixteen-year-old gang raped outside of a school dance, and the unidentified woman’s body found in a trailer ten miles down the road, and the PhD candidate who cut his wife‘s throat. In our culture it’s incredible to me how accustomed we are to the image of a brutalized, naked, dead woman.
Why did you choose to write the story in the manner you did—discussing the fallout to an action readers don’t see until the end?
I wanted to write this novel in fragments. Like collecting the pieces of something that has shattered. There were two main reasons for my writing the book this way. One was so that it would reflect the process Flynn or any reporter or cop goes through to get information, often from unreliable or compromised sources. And the other was to mirror the psychological structure of denial—so that the reader experiences that denial, that thing hidden in plain sight from the self. I wanted the reader to be party to the amassing of details and stories about an event that is already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, revealed or reconciled. This is also why the narrative moves between different periods of time and different narrators. I wanted there to be a sense of grappling with what is known and what is hidden.
Alice is at once athletic and smart, but she also lives in her own world. Where did the character come from in your mind?
I envisioned Alice Piper as a very traditional character—a classic epic hero and a classic antihero. An outsider who has many skills, who is fearless, who comes to a place that is controlled by an unacknowledged power, who defeats it though her birthright and training and then moves on. This kind of narrative and this kind of character is very old. But I suspect Alice seems unusual in part because she’s not “High Plains Drifter”—she’s a young girl and generally girls play other traditional roles throughout popular culture and literature; their inner lives are still for the most part uncharted territory. I conceived of Alice as someone who is driven to achieve and understand and fix the things that she sees as wrong in the world, then suffers a disillusionment that causes her to act. In her mind these actions are clearly her ethical obligation. “ It would hardly be rational,“ she says, “to accept that I am a thing made of flesh that men capture, hide and wait in line to rape.“ Alice is the natural product of her environment, her upbringing, and her parents’ ideologies. Her disillusionment and horror and rage are common coming-of-age experiences for women, ones we all have but don’t talk about. I believe there are many girls like Alice Piper in the world, and their numbers are growing, girls with rich inner lives, capable of things we can barely anticipate. That’s why I created the character.
In the end, Alice seems to get away free. Why did you choose to end the story this way?
Every central character in So Much Pretty gets away—Alice, Dale, Flynn, Tom Cutting, the Pipers, Constant. But it’s a haunted kind of freedom for everyone.
How is your work as a journalist affected your storytelling? Is it an easy switch to make?
I have always written fiction or creative nonfiction in addition to reporting, and don’t feel it’s difficult making the transition from one form of writing to the other. I think this is a pretty common experience. Changing careers from reporter to novelist has been the traditional trajectory of writers for the last century; it’s only been in the past few decades that creative writing has been “professionalized” through the university system and the MFA. So, yes, the switch was very easy to make. The conventions of being a reporter helped me immensely as a fiction writer. Remaining deadline-driven and being focused on accuracy, patterns of speech, detail, and the economy of language became second nature to me as a reporter, and those skills have served me well as a fiction writer. Reporting is an excellent foundation. Working in a newsroom beats you down and gives you real-world writing and—maybe more importantly—real-world social skills. Reporting makes you skeptical, reveals how people’s lives are interesting and rich and serious, demands that you research before putting ink on the page, and exposes you to intense criticism. It also provides great discipline; you get work done while phones are ringing, the scanner is going off, and five or six people are talking right next to you. You have to write coherently and objectively about things that may be upsetting or distracting, and you can’t make excuses or you‘ll be fired. Essentially, reporting provides enormous insights and busts your chops at the same time, which is a great way to learn how to be a novelist.
What is your writing process? How long did it take to write this story?
It took me a year to write So Much Pretty, but for a long time I had been thinking about the story and researching related topics, like environmental issues, the transformation of rural America, violence against women, and school shootings, and the convergence of all these seemingly discrete social issues. As far as the process is concerned I don’t know that I have one routine way of doing things. I like to outline several projects and work on them simultaneously, so that if I get distracted with one I have something to move on to and immerse myself in. I’ve done most of my writing in the same room with a child playing Legos under the table, telling me his ideas, insisting he’s a mouse who works as a lineman for the cable company, or just singing loudly. I wrote the first draft of So Much Pretty with this now older child’s punk band practicing in the attic of my apartment, and sometimes I had to “ask” them to stop. Quiet is nice, but after a while I learned I didn’t need it in order to work. If there is any process that I believe in, it’s just relaxing and knowing that all external sensory information is going to be a benefit somehow, especially in writing fiction. Remaining a part of the real world is the big challenge for writers. You can’t write about people’s lives if you take yourself out of the equation and limit your emotional and intellectual existence to things going on in your head—that‘s what dreaming is for. I guess my process has to do with being awake and then writing things down, regardless of what is going on around me. Writing is no mystery, it’s a trade, a job like any other.
What is the message that you’d like this novel to send to readers?
What projects are you working on now?
I’m writing my second novel, which I am really happy about— it’s a world I am very excited to enter every day. In addition I’m digging through journals I kept when I lived in Athens, and researching a book of nonfiction that I hope to write next year, and also collaborating on a screenplay.
"This beautiful, stealthy novel creeps up on the mesmerized reader, subtly drawing new strands into itself until what begins as the suspenseful story of a rural American murder grows into a dark, disquieting and urgently fascinating examination of the violence and concealment practiced by a whole society. . . Hoffman never surrenders the compassion, insightfulness and humor that make her a masterful navigator of the human heart. This is an impassioned, intelligent and important work of art."—Chris Cleave, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Little Bee and Incendiary
“A haunting suspense novel about a murder mystery based on a real-life missing-persons case.”—Entertainment Weekly, #3 on “The Must List”
“[A] fearless first novel… For all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain. She also shows a mastery of her craft by developing the story over 17 years and narrating it from multiple perspectives. While each has a different take on the horrific events that no one saw coming, the people who live in this insular place remain willfully blind to their own contributions to the deeper causes that made this tragedy almost inevitable.”—New York Times Book Review
“So Much Pretty delivers a skillful, psychologically acute tale of how violence affects a small town . . . To say more about Hoffman's constantly surprising story is to reveal too much, but the payoff is more than worth the slow-building suspense.”—Los Angeles Times
“A dark but powerful debut . . . Hoffman maps the atmosphere of paranoia that descends on the formerly tranquil town as she moves deftly between its inhabitants.”—The New Yorker (Books Pick)
"An extraordinarily smart and beautifully written page turner. . . . suspenseful and highly charged . . . Hoffman passionately blends the issue of violence against women that lurks unacknowledged at the dark edges of our culture with a narrative that paints a grim picture of any-town America. Hoffman’s literary voice is a force and this novel will leave you reeling."—Powells.com
“The way investigative reporter Hoffman navigates the line between what is spoken and unspoken, and portrays a community's desire to address any crisis but the one next door make So Much Pretty a staggering read.”—Huffington Post
“Cara Hoffman has written an intriguing, tangled puzzle of a novel that defies categorization. . . . As haunting and disturbing as Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones. . . . So Much Pretty will be equally provocative and unforgettable for teen readers, especially those who love solving a good puzzle.”—School Library Journal
“Hoffman takes on the poverty, drug abuse, environmental disasters and violence against women that are endemic to a small town in upstate New York. And she does it brilliantly, in stark and poetic prose, expressing a variety of viewpoints on the murder around which the story turns. And she does it in a way that lodges in the corner of your mind and just won't leave. . . . Alice Piper just may be the blonder, less-punk version of Lisbeth Salander, that girl of the dragon tattoo. . . . Everything counts in Hoffman's toned work, as even the tiniest plot point becomes important to the unfolding narrative. Pay attention to So Much Pretty. It's mesmerizing.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
"A spectacular debut: This beautifully constructed mystery, with its engaging characters and intriguing premise, has everything a reader wants."—The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“A mixture of The Lovely Bones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo . . . Hoffman’s narrative oscillates between various characters, carefully building suspense, depth, and new insight with every chapter. Let’s hope we will be seeing more of this talented new writer.”—Booklist
“So Much Pretty is a haunting, gloomy novel that defies genre — it is one part crime thriller, one part ambitious novel, one part prose poem. . . . [The novel] raises questions about denial, violence against women and when a citizen should speak up, even if it puts another at risk.”—NPR.org
“Perspective is a funny thing. It can make a small farm community in upstate New York seem isolating and suffocating for one person, a liberating paradise for another. In Cara Hoffman's debut novel, So Much Pretty, this jarring disconnect is one of the story's most intriguing undercurrents. . . . the novel effectively frames a compelling murder mystery with provocative, troubling issues, exploring adolescent violence, the victimization of women, revenge, and societal pressure to favor the good of the community over the rights of the individual. . . . Hoffman ambitiously mines fertile, controversial ground and asks a lot of tough, unanswerable questions; the most heartrending is simply, ‘Why?'”—The Boston Globe
“In this remarkable debut, Hoffman addresses serious injustices in present-day America. . . . This searing novel will linger long in the reader's memory.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The theme of So Much Pretty is innocence lost and idealism gone wrong. . . . In the rundown little town of Haeden, things are never what they seem, as the tone of the novel grows more sinister and a young woman disappears. . . . The pace quickens as Hoffman brings the story to its dark and chilling conclusion. VERDICT: This gripping novel asks readers to judge whether a horrible crime can ever justify a terrible act of revenge. It will engage individuals and book groups interested in debating this tough topic."—Library Journal
"Both haunting and moving . . . It's impossible not to be changed after reading this book."—Truth-out.org
“Captivating . . . Hoffman's careful weaving of each storyline is seamless. . . . The eyewitness accounts, and police interviews provide the most compelling material, as Hoffman creates a magnificent buildup to the conclusion. The story slowly evolves, making the reader anxious, and posing the question, does an act of vengeance equal justice?”—Manhattan Literature Examiner (Examiner.com)
“Very good and very hard to put down . . . If we’re forcing comparisons, I’d add . . . Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel Winter’s Bone for the hardscrabble grit of Smalltown, USA. . . . So Much Pretty looks searingly at the questions of justice and revenge. Many readers will find some of the answers shocking.”—January Magazine
"In this polyphonic wonder of a book, Cara Hoffman will keep you reading into the wee hours of the night. So Much Pretty is a riveting and disturbing novel about the accommodations we make for violence and the human need for justice. Hoffman gets every detail right, and she seems to miss nothing. So Much Pretty is the impressive debut of a fierce novelist."—Dana Spiotta, National Book Award-nominated author of Stone Arabia
“So Much Pretty unravels a narrative that's rich with suspense and moral complexity. Delicately balancing two story lines, Cara Hoffman dramatizes a death and a disappearance. Along the way, we get caught up in her portraits of those who belong, those who don't, and the irreversible consequences of lives coming together. This story of violence begetting violence is a fine debut.”—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
“So Much Pretty is an incredible, important book . . . I think everyone should read it.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Commencement and Maine
“A passionately angry, poetic, intelligent and shocking book. Cara Hoffman not only discovers the heart of darkness in small town Haeden, but brilliantly dissects it.”—Rosamund Lupton, New York Times bestselling author of Sister
"So Much Pretty is certain to be talked about—not merely because it is a profound meditation on both public and private violence in small-town America, but for its captivating storytelling which draws you in on a visceral level and leaves you feeling haunted, in the best of ways."—Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust
"So Much Pretty is everything I love in a novel—dark, fascinating, beautifully written, impossible to put down. It marks the beginning of what promises to be an indelible literary career for Cara Hoffman."—Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love
“So Much Pretty is a compelling whodunit, an unnerving portrait of just what the back of nowhere looks like, and an arresting meditation on our culture's ongoing acceptance of violence against women. It's powered by both a despairing tenderness and an unflinching rage, each of which, as the novel makes heartbreakingly clear, are more than justified.”—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad and Like You’d Understand, Anyway