Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Book: So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman (2011)

Haeden, New York is not one of those quaint upstate towns that serves as a weekend getaway for Manhattanites. It’s an isolated, hardscrabble town at the base of Appalachia’s spine. When the local girl dating the local golden boy disappears and eventually turns up dead, the residents immediately affix blame on some outsider, a “drifter.” Only those with roots elsewhere resist the explanation. Stacy Flynn, the transplanted tightly-wound journalist who has taken over Haeden’s newspaper. Gene and Claire Piper, a pair of unreconstructed hippie doctors who abandoned New York City to go back to the land. And above all their whip-smart daughter Alice.

In her debut novel Cara Hoffman opts for a mosaic approach that ping-pongs back and forth through decades, assumes the POVs of a dozen characters, and incorporates a variety of documents. Despite the high degree of difficulty every voice rings true, none more so than Claire, a profoundly decent woman who is “exhausted ... from hearing nothing new for half a year at a time - not even a new joke or figure of speech - from constantly explaining what she’d said or what she meant, or putting the places she was talking about into context. Tired of being poor now for almost twenty years.” Hoffman’s facility with this complex technique is daunting, and at times makes one wish she’d stick with one thread a little longer. She also tackles a brace of issues like the environmental effects of factory farming without slowing the narrative, and expresses a righteous fury about the silence surrounding crimes against women without resorting to Stieg Larsson-style sensationalism.

Some readers will undoubtedly be frustrated by Hoffman’s emphasis on the why rather than the who of one of her book’s central mysteries. But there is absolutely no denying the potency of its shocking ending. So Much Pretty is occasionally maddening and frequently brilliant, an astonishing feat of storytelling. It’s a tough book to love and a tougher one to shake.