The Pipers are a family built on optimism. Claire and Gene moved with their precocious, beguiling daughter Alice to Haeden, New York for a fresh start. In doing so, they unwittingly re-write the story of her life. Wendy White has strong roots in Haeden, a late-blooming young woman, mindful of family and home. Her story has a beginning and an end, but is missing the most important piece—the middle. What happened to Wendy White? Stacey Flynn is a reporter, both a seeker and a teller of stories. It is gritty, relentless and ultimately reckless Flynn who will chronicle Wendy White’s existence from all the fragments she can find, and forge a path toward the end. But only we will ever know the whole story.
When she disappeared from her rural hometown, Wendy White was a sweet, family-oriented girl, a late bloomer who’d recently moved out on her own, with her first real boyfriend and a job waiting tables at the local tavern. It happens all the time—a woman goes missing, a family mourns, and the case remains unsolved. Stacy Flynn is a reporter looking for her big break. She moved east from Cleveland, a city known for its violent crime, but that’s the last thing she expected to cover in Haeden. This small, upstate New York town counts a dairy farm as its main employer and is home to families who’ve set down roots and never left—people who don’t take kindly to outsiders. Flynn is researching the environmental impact of the dairy, and the way money flows outward like the chemical runoff, eventually poisoning those who live at the edges of its reach.
Five months after she disappeared, Wendy’s body is found in a ditch just off one of Haeden’s main roads. Suddenly, Flynn has a big story, but no one wants to talk to her. No one seems to think that Wendy’s killer could still be among them. A drifter, they say. Someone “not from here.”
Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper is an imaginative student with a genius IQ and strong ideals. The precocious, confident girl has stood out in Haeden since the day her eccentric hippie parents moved there from New York City, seeking a better life for their only child. When Alice reads Flynn’s passionate article in the Haeden Free Press about violence against women—about the staggering number of women who are killed each day by people they know—she begins to connect the dots of Wendy’s disappearance and death, leading her to make a choice: join the rest in turning a blind eye, or risk getting involved. As Flynn and Alice separately observe the locals’ failure to acknowledge a murderer in their midst, Alice’s fate is forever entwined with Wendy’s when a second crime rocks the town to its core.
Stylishly written, closely observed, and bracingly unexpected, So Much Pretty leads the reader into the treacherous psychology of denial, where the details of an event are already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, reconciled or revealed. Linda Fairstein and Cara Hoffman: Author One-on- One
Linda Fairstein, New York Times
bestselling author of the Alex Cooper crime novels—whose 2011 entry in the series is Silent Mercy
—was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney's office in Manhattan for more than two decades and is America's foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence. Here, she interviews Cara Hoffman, author of So Much Pretty
, a novel that centers on the disappearance of a young woman from a rural New York community. Fairstein:
As I read So Much Pretty
, which is a stunning debut novel, I was reminded of The Lovely Bones
. What do you think it is about our society that is so fascinated by the victimization of young women? Hoffman:
I think we are fascinated by the victimization of women, especially young women, because that kind of violence is revelatory of who we are; it’s common and all-pervasive but treated as though it is very rare and shocking. The fascination lies in the sense that a known secret is being revealed and that denial is being shattered by physical evidence, which is always frightening and exhilarating and titillating to people. I also think that there is a fascination with the victimization of women because some people obviously take pleasure in it. There’s an undeniably misogynistic core to our society—its days are numbered for sure—but it’s still there, and one of the ways it flexes, especially as it gets weaker, is to focus on images of women as naked, vulnerable, afraid and dead. Fairstein:
In So Much Pretty
, you make the point that we should "pay attention to the obvious." As a prosecutor, I saw hundreds of cases where women were assaulted or killed by men they knew. How did you go about writing a novel in which the whodunit aspect is actually less integral than the why? Hoffman:
As a journalist I’ve always felt "why" was the question that mattered the most, that made clear all the extenuating circumstances and unearthed the subtext of the story. Knowing that a crime has been committed doesn’t get you anywhere. Knowing WHY might. And for that we have to focus on many details about the perpetrators and where they came from, what made them who they are. Those details were very much on my mind when I was writing So Much Pretty
You have also said that we are "inundated by violence and it becomes something that drives our aesthetics." Can you give readers some insight as to how you balance the task of writing about this subject with the feeling that it is perhaps too widely accepted as an "entertainment" trope in books, movies and television? Hoffman:
This is a fantastic question. And it really is a tough balancing act. I’m reminded of that part in Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead
, where he shows how anti-war movies depicting graphic violence are cheered and lauded by soldiers, how they become a kind of recruiting tool. And I am very much aware of how similar things play out in film and fiction depicting sexual violence. I thought about this daily with So Much Pretty
and discussed it a lot with friends who are journalists, and with my brother who is an ethicist. I think, because of its ending, it would be very, very difficult for someone who is entertained by violence against women to get what they’re looking for from So Much Pretty
Although I draw from real motives and character traits in writing my novels, I don't base the central story on an actual case or crime. Was So Much Pretty
inspired by a real-life case? Hoffman:
It was. The details and locations have been changed, but the novel is based on a case I covered when I was in my early twenties. Unlike Flynn’s situation in So Much Pretty
, it was one of the first significant stories I wrote about for a community newspaper, and it was the first time I’d been assigned to write about anything other than environmental issues. Fairstein:
Most reviewers distinguish "literary fiction" from the crime genre. I think some of the best crime novelists write brilliant fiction. Would you consider this book a "crime novel" or not? Hoffman:
Another great question and one that really made me think about the hard boiled novels that I love. I don’t consider So Much Pretty
a crime novel, though it centers around two fairly gruesome criminal events. I consider it an accurate pastoral. Pastorals of course were born from a kind of exhaustion of war writing, the need to lay down among the tall grass with the lambs and pretend that the bloody world of coercion doesn’t exist. In So Much Pretty
you get to see what really goes on in that landscape and find that it’s not a reprieve but rather a mirror of war. Flynn takes up this idea explicitly, saying about the people of Haeden, that she was "thrown, entirely thrown by the price of their quiet lives, their contentment." So Much Pretty
reveals an uncomfortable truth about who has been paying that price and for how long. And brings clarity to a very simple but intentionally obscured world people are heavily invested in seeing as "mysterious." You don’t stop violence by looking away from it. But looking at it means addressing our own culpability and complicity and making difficult decisions about how to act.
Claire Piper addresses the losing battle many people face to remain focused and honest when she says, "Sleep had won out at last. We moved through our days in Haeden in a somnolent kind of daze; blithe when our senses called for panic, blind to our deepest fear, even as it lay, naked among the tall weeds, waiting." Ultimately, So Much Pretty
is not about one specific crime—it’s about a criminal way of life, and the difficult choices families, communities and everyday folks have to make in order to live with their awareness of that criminality. Fairstein:
As a long- time victim advocate, I think one of the most powerful points in your book was the paragraph in which you asked: "How disposable is a woman's life? How expected. How unsurprising. How normal. How many times a week, a month, a year does that happen?" I truly admire what you have created in this novel, bringing the issue of sexual violence into the public conversation. You write with such elegance and the skills of a superb storyteller. You have my very best wishes for the success of So Much Pretty
Thank you, Linda. I’m honored that you value my writing. And thank you for the truly groundbreaking work that you have done on behalf of women everywhere.
(Photo of Linda Fairstein © Peter Simon)
(Photo of Cara Hoffman © Jon Reis)
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.