Cara Hoffman’s debut novel, So Much Pretty, is a masterwork of suspense. While it’s not a thriller or horror story, it somehow manages to be thrilling and horrifying at the same time. The story revolves around Alice Piper, a highly intelligent, intellectually curious girl, who is brought up in the small town of Haeden, in upstate New York. Alice’s parents are probably anarchists, though the author never quite comes out and says so, but you can gather from the reading material that is available to Alice and the conversations she has with her closest friend Theo, and from her schoolwork, that this child does not quite fit in with the ordinary social structure of the town. Almost peripheral to the tale of Alice is the terrible story of Wendy White, local waitress , who disappears for nearly 6 months before her body is found on the outskirts of town.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, and multiple points in the timeline. It’s a tricky way to build suspense, because as a reader you are constantly forced to fit the stories into the timeline yourself. Chapters describing Alice’s parents’ life in New York City before Alice was born, are interleaved with Alice’s school assignments and then interview records from 15 years later.Â But Cara Hoffman has managed to use this complexity to make a carefully constructed vision of the town, a vision which the townsfolk all share and which hides the terrible reality that here is a town where a girl can go missing, and nobody seems to want to find out what has really happened to her.
When Wendy’s body is found, the evidence is mishandled and the coroner doesn’t turn up, so the town’s reporter Stacy Flynn, herself an outsider, feels compelled to dig around a little deeper. What she finds just doesn’t add up and she is frustrated by the town’s seemingly deliberate blindness to the facts. She has her suspicions, but it is Alice who brings it to a head and to a shocking conclusion. When Stacy finally confronts Alice she is unable to hold her to blame, because deep down she knows that Alice, with her strong moral and ethical sense, and clear understanding of the town’s own morality, has found the true answer.
At times deeply disturbing, and at others fanciful, this novel could be hard to complete – the suspense does build very slowly. Then by halfway through, you know something has happened, something with Alice at the centre, and now you need to know what that is. You never need to ask why Alice did what she did – it’s clear from her background that she really had no choice. Which brings me back to saying that this story, a mystery, suspenseful drama, is both a thriller and horror story without really being either.
Available now: Random House RRP$32.95