Mystery unfolds in idyllic small town
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. For the idealistic Claire and Gene Piper, a house in the tiny fictional town of Haeden, N.Y., represented space and opportunity, a safe place to get back to the land, an escape from “traffic and noise and sewer smells’’ and Claire’s 70-hour work weeks at NYC’s Comprehensive Free Clinic for the Uninsured. Initially, it was also an idyllic place to raise their precocious 2-year-old daughter, Alice.
Stacy Flynn is a reporter who left her job in Cleveland and arrived in Haeden looking to launch her career with “a big picture story from a backwater nowhere.’’ What she got was a story that was insular and insidious in the midst of a community suspicious of strangers and in denial about the dark ugliness within. Flynn describes the disconnect between the intellectual Pipers and their hardscrabble neighbors with her trademark blend of insight and cynicism. “They were witty, intelligent people . . . but there was something slightly off about them — they’d experienced one too many bedtime readings of Peter Pan, maybe, had the earnest gaze of one who believes Tinker Bell can be brought back from the dead if we all clap our hands. They were looking for a place to love . . . no matter the real landscape of the region, a landscape that included nearly two thousand other people whose median income was less than $14,000 a year.’’
Then there’s 19-year-old Wendy White. Sweet, attractive, and hard-working, she graduates from high school but decides to forgo college in favor of staying in Haeden with her close-knit family. But by page 8, we know that White is destined for tragedy. She goes missing without a trace, and part of what fuels the narrative of “So Much Pretty’’ is the town’s reaction to White’s disappearance, reactions ranging from apathy and police ineptitude to deeply felt concern (especially by White’s family, her boyfriend, and the ardent, inquisitive Flynn) to denial and mean-spirited speculation that White probably had just gotten full of herself and run away.
Based on a real case that the author encountered during her stint as a police beat reporter, 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. As the novel bounds back and forth in time, through almost 15 years, the story loses linear drive while also making it tricky to bond with the characters. Though young Alice, who develops from age 2 to 15 through the course of the book, is the story’s most vibrant character, we most identify with Flynn. Like the reader, Flynn is the objective outsider who gets pulled in. Angry and determined, she presses for the truth while those around her turn a blind eye.
Toward the end, “So Much Pretty’’ veers sharply into shocking melodrama as another chilling tragedy rocks the community to its very core. At that point, Hoffman pulls in a whole slew of tangential characters, many for the first time, to reflect on the chain of events, and it’s a fairly grim slog from there to the end. But Hoffman ambitiously mines fertile, controversial ground and asks a lot of tough, unanswerable questions; the most heartrending is simply, “Why?’’