One summer, a man abducts two 12-year-old girls. One is a pageant queen, the other a spelling bee champion. Both have parents who can’t quite give them the loving attention they crave. Their captor drives them to a remote cabin in the Adirondack Mountains, far from civilisation and any hope of rescue.
So far, so unpleasantly familiar. But this is a crime novel that, for once, doesn’t revel in the gory details of crimes committed against women and girls. In her compelling debut, Maggie Mitchell no sooner presents us with a crime cliché than she holds it up to the light and gives it a good shake.
For one thing, we know from the start that both girls survive, as their adult selves narrate the action in short, alternating chapters. Eighteen years after the abduction, Carly May, the former pageant queen, is now a C-grade Hollywood actress. Lois is a young English professor at an East Coast college, and has published a pseudonymous novel, called Deep in the Woods, closely based on the events of that summer. The two women haven’t spoken since the weeks after their abduction, but when Carly May lands a role in the film version of Lois’s novel, the two are once again brought into each other’s orbit.
Both women are secretive about their pasts, reluctant to be seen as victims. Yet the figure of their enigmatic kidnapper, known only as “Zed”, looms large in both their mental landscapes. When we finally meet Zed in an extended extract from Deep in the Woods, he is an attentive, handsome young man, far from the kind of menacing stranger the girls associate with danger. They are drawn to him, even as they contemplate their perilous situation. This novel-within-a-novel section is unexpectedly beautiful, and readers may find themselves wanting to read the rest of Lois’s thriller, particularly as it lacks the minor weaknesses found elsewhere in Pretty Is.
Mitchell tends to rely on unlikely coincidences to drive the plot, and a subplot about a student stalking Lois gets far more page time than it deserves and leads the novel to a clunky conclusion. But there’s much else to enjoy. The voices of Lois and Carly May are convincing and distinct, their complex relationship keenly felt, and the figure of Zed strikes just the right note of menace and allure. Mitchell delivers all the suspense and intrigue you want from a crime thriller, but it is her thoughtful depiction of lives shaped by trauma that makes her such an assured new talent. DV
Orion, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Maggie Mitchell, Pretty Is". Subscribe here.