Book Review: So Much Pretty

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This is the cover on my
ARC copy

I don’t think most of us in the book blogging world write reviews of every book we read.  I know I don’t.  How do we pick the ones we do decide to write about?  For me, sometimes I review a book because I know it’s a book everyone seems to be talking about and I want to contribute my two cents worth.  Sometimes I’m moved to write about books I really, really didn’t like, but that’s always a hard one; I feel haunted by my mother saying, “If you can’t say something nice…”  Sometimes I review a book because I really, really loved it.  Sometimes I review a book because it got me thinking about something, and mostly those reviews are about me more than they’re about the book itself.  Sometimes I write about a book because I notice that I haven’t actually written about a book on my blog in a long time and I feel I’m due.  I’m writing about So Much Pretty because it disturbed me.  Disturbed me in the way that makes you want to force one of your friends to read it so you can see if it disturbs them as well.

So Much Prettty, by Cara Hoffman is set in a small farming town called Haeden in upstate New York.  Or perhaps it’s better to say that Haeden used to be a farming town.  Now, like many rural communities across the country, it’s part bedroom community and part holding place for folks who’ve been left behind, or for whatever reason, have chosen not to get out.  The Pipers, on the other hand, are in Haeden to get back to the land.  Claire and Gene move to Haeden with their daughter Alice to drop out of their lives in New York City fighting the good fight and live a kind of counterculture, anarchist, back to the land, dream.

And then things happen.  A young woman with solid roots in Haeden who decides to stay instead of leave disappears, her dead body eventually found along the side of the road.  A reporter from Cleveland becomes obsessed with getting at the “truth” of what is happening in Haeden, which includes the ways in which rural America is being used as a kind of third world dumping sight for our toxic waste located right in our own backyards.  That’s just the beginning of the long list of things that happen in this novel.

Probably, too much happens in this novel.  It feels a little to me like a very strange dissertation or thesis written as a novel.  It’s a study of what happens when urban and rural cultures collide.  It’s a study of the origins and implications of anarchist philosophy.  It’s an exploration of the political economy of rural America and how that effects small town life.  And there’s a message about the pervasive and sinister effects of widespread violence against women in our culture.  Is this sounding creepy to you yet?  Because it is.  It’s creepy.

I don’t know if Hoffman quite pulls it all off, as that’s a lot to be going on in one novel.  Nonetheless, I am disturbed.  I finished the novel yesterday, and I am still distinctly disturbed.  I am always unsure whether this state of disturbance is a sign of very good fiction, or very bad fiction, or something else entirely.

I think this cover might be better

There are some very sinister and disturbing things that happen in this novel.  I’m not giving too much away to say they take the form of violence against women.  That’s nothing particularly unusual.  But Hoffman and her characters take quite seriously the idea that violence against women is systemic and a crucial element of women’s oppression and subordination.  Violence against women is horrible, but it is doubly horrible in that even if you are yourself never a victim, it has affected your life.  It is the cornerstone, many feminists would argue, upon which our oppression is built.  In the sociology of gender course I teach, we read an essay by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz about women, violence and resistance.  There’s a quote in the essay from Ellen Willis, and she says, “Men don’t take us seriously because they’re not physically afraid of us.”  In a fair fight, they would win.  Bottom line.

This seems to be the realization Alice Piper comes to in the novel after the body of the young woman is discovered dead:

…Women’s bodies, which first became their coffins at puberty, a skin coffin.  A place from which you will never be heard, except maybe by those who are buried nearby, or those with their ear to the ground.
After Wendy White’s body was found, I saw the world as it was for the first time.  When her body was found, I was also found.  I woke up in her grave and gazed down at my legs, took in the power of my lungs, my biceps, my hands and feet, and knew what they were for.

When we read the essay in my class, the students often ignore this point, but I always lead them back to it.  Is this true?  Is it true that we cannot end gender inequality without making men afraid of us?  If we live in a culture that so glorifies and feeds on violence, in a culture in which violence truly is power, are we not obligated to use violence ourselves?  I tell my students that I don’t have the answers to any of the questions I ask them, but that is more or less true for some of the questions; when I ask this question, I am truly not sure what the answer is.

You’ll have to read the novel to see exactly what Alice concludes her body is for, but it’s a rather radical conclusion.  A conclusion that has me disturbed for myself, but also for my daughter.  I don’t think Alice is right, but the strength of her argument is, well, disturbing.

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