Book review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Pretty Is
Pretty Is

Thrillers featuring child abduction have become de rigueur in recent times… but here’s one that gives a stunning new twist to the genre.

Two 12-year-old girls – snatched off the street and held in a remote hunting lodge in Connecticut for two months – escaped apparently unharmed and unmolested. Their charismatic kidnapper seemed to be more teacher than villain and the girls formed a close bond, but many questions were left unanswered.

Eighteen years later, how are the two grown women coping with disturbing events in their past, what are the psychological implications and how will they cope with a new, dark and unexpected threat?

Maggie Mitchell, Professor of English at the University of West Georgia, plays a blinder in her tense, multi-layered debut, a smart and subtle literary novel which turns the traditional kidnap and murder horror story on its head with startling skill and impressive intelligence.

Lois Lonsdale from Connecticut and Carly May Smith from Nebraska were both just 12 when they were kidnapped by a man, known to them as Zed, and imprisoned in a cabin in the woods for two months of the summer.

The girls came from very different worlds… precocious Lois, a school spelling ace, was the displaced daughter of two New England inn keepers, a prettily dressed, extravagantly well-behaved ‘prop’ for her busy parents’ business. Pretty Carly May was a beauty pageant queen, an outsider in her own home and manipulated by her scheming stepmother, a woman more like a ‘cartoon’ character than a mother.

That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they formed a bond that would never be broken. They survived their ordeal but nothing was ever the same again for them.

‘It was as if we had returned from the dead, as if we were tainted somehow,’ reflects Lois 18 years later. She is now a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, keeping her head down, her identity a secret and remaining ‘respectably anonymous.’

Carly May, meanwhile, is a C-list actress in Los Angeles, working under the name of Chloe Savage, drinking too much and struggling to revive her flagging career.

The two abducted girls had essentially ceased to exist for the media and each other, but now Lois has put them both on another collision course. Her novel, written under a pen name, fictionalises the abduction and is about to be made into a film… starring actress Chloe Savage.

As Lois and Chloe face up to the public exposure of their secret history, they must finally confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that still haunt them, and an obsessive stalker presents a new and dangerous terror.

Mitchell delivers a disturbing and intriguing debut, a highly original, alternative crime story brimming with mystery, psychological tension and menace as we flit between the accounts of Lois and Chloe and witness the slow unravelling of their memories, and their lives past and present.

Two complex, damaged women, increasingly haunted by their own roles and motives in the devastating abduction, are forced to face up to long-buried truths and make sense of what really happened to them.

Fascinating literary allusions and parallels, a gradual fusion of the various plotlines and a powerful exploration of identity, friendship and shared experience make Pretty Is a scintillating, stylish and stand-out thriller.

(Orion, paperback, £7.99)