Praise for So Much Pretty
"In her fearless first novel, So Much Pretty, Cara Hoffman demolishes our illusions about country life by addressing the problems of poverty, domestic abuse, teenage violence and environmental damage that are threatening to destroy the small communities of rural America. Gene and Claire Piper, newly married doctors who worked in a free clinic on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, thought they’d escaped the curse of modern civilization when they moved to a depressed upstate town and turned to organic farming. But years later, when their daughter, Alice, is in high school, their neighbors still consider them outsiders. Precociously brilliant Alice is even more of an alien, though she doesn’t realize it until the murder of a local girl makes her aware of the community’s hateful attitudes toward women.
For all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain. She also shows a mastery of her craft by developing the story over 17 years and narrating it from multiple perspectives. While each has a different take on the horrific events that no one saw coming, the people who live in this insular place remain willfully blind to their own contributions to the deeper causes that made this tragedy almost inevitable." —The New York Times Book Review
“A haunting suspense novel about a murder mystery based on a real-life missing-persons case.”
—Entertainment Weekly, #3 on “The Must List”
“[A] dark but powerful début novel . . . . Hoffman maps the atmosphere of paranoia that descends on the formerly tranquil town as she moves deftly between its inhabitants . . . the book’s eerily potent conclusion will convince readers that, as Hoffman writes, ‘the responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious.’”—The New Yorker “Books Pick”
"So Much Pretty is harder to pin down, trickier in its aims and delivers a skillful, psychologically acute tale of how violence affects a small town, its tentacles enmeshed so deeply into the collective fabric that it takes the thoughts and actions of one intelligent adolescent to shake things up and force everyone to examine their duplicitous complacency. To say more about Hoffman's constantly surprising story is to reveal too much, but the payoff is more than worth the slow-building suspense."
—The Los Angeles Times
"In this remarkable debut, Hoffman addresses serious injustices in present-day America. In 1992, Claire and Gene Piper, both idealistic New York City physicians, eschew joining Doctors Without Borders and decide instead to move with their gifted two-year-old daughter, Alice, to upstate Haeden, N.Y., to pursue the simple life in the spirit of the '60s back-to-nature movement. After nearly two fruitless decades, Gene's hope of destroying corporate agribusiness in the name of "land and air and autonomy" has left Claire exhausted, in body and soul, and Alice determined to avenge a ghastly crime against all women that she realizes is implicit in Haeden's smalltown-ghost town mentality. Meanwhile, journalist Stacy Flynn indicts Big Pharm for forcing scientists to manipulate people into doing things the scientists believe are wrong, and factory food production for repurposing the countryside into a toxic-waste site. Hoffman's doomed characters burn their way off her angry pages. This searing novel will linger long in the reader's memory."
—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“Perspective is a funny thing. It can make a small farm community in upstate New York seem isolating and suffocating for one person, a liberating paradise for another. In Cara Hoffman's debut novel, So Much Pretty, this jarring disconnect is one of the story's most intriguing undercurrents. . . . the novel effectively frames a compelling murder mystery with provocative, troubling issues, exploring adolescent violence, the victimization of women, revenge, and societal pressure to favor the good of the community over the rights of the individual. . . . Hoffman ambitiously mines fertile, controversial ground and asks a lot of tough, unanswerable questions; the most heartrending is simply, ‘Why?'”
—The Boston Globe
“Hoffmann depicts a country in which violence against women is ubiquitous and largely invisible, and where city and country regard each other with incomprehension and disgust...splendidly ballsy...intelligent and gripping stuff.”
—Financial Times of London
"A spectacular debut: This beautifully constructed mystery, with its engaging characters and intriguing premise, has everything a reader wants..."
-The Globe and Mail
“A mixture of The Lovely Bones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hoffman’s first novel is a small-town murder mystery with a surprising twist. Haeden, New York, leaves much to be desired for Flynn, the young reporter covering the community beat. But when Wendy White, the local bar maid, goes missing, and Flynn begins uncovering some disturbing local secrets, things get very interesting. Meanwhile, high-school student Alice Piper is facing her own challenges. She’s smart, creative, and quickly outgrowing the small-town mentality of Haeden. Her family encourages her feisty spirit, and her best friend, Theo, is her accomplice in more ways than one. Hoffman’s narrative oscillates between various characters, carefully building suspense, depth, and new insight with every chapter. Let’s hope we will be seeing more of this talented new writer.”
"Cara Hoffman has lived an interesting life. A highschool dropout who wandered around Europe and the Middle East, working odd jobs while most kids are in college, she later climbed her way from newspaper-delivery girl to investigative reporter, covering crime and the environment in rural, low-income parts of upstate New York. Her first novel, So Much Pretty, about a smalltown murder, draws from that experience, as well as Hoffman’s fascination with the ways violence manifests itself in society." - San Diego City Beat
"The theme of So Much Pretty is innocence lost and idealism gone wrong. . . . In the rundown little town of Haeden, things are never what they seem, as the tone of the novel grows more sinister and a young woman disappears. . . . The pace quickens as Hoffman brings the story to its dark and chilling conclusion. VERDICT: This gripping novel asks readers to judge whether a horrible crime can ever justify a terrible act of revenge. It will engage individuals and book groups interested in debating this tough topic."
“Hoffman takes on the poverty, drug abuse, environmental disasters and violence against women that are endemic to a small town in upstate New York. And she does it brilliantly, in stark and poetic prose, expressing a variety of viewpoints on the murder around which the story turns. And she does it in a way that lodges in the corner of your mind and just won't leave. . . . brilliant outsider Alice has a command of logic, a perfect memory and a sense of justice to match. She lives the philosophy that Gene and Claire's friend Michelle, a Doctors Without Borders physician, likes to quote from George Orwell: ‘The responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious.’ Alice just may be the blonder, less-punk version of Lisbeth Salander, that girl of the dragon tattoo. . . . Everything counts in Hoffman's toned work, as even the tiniest plot point becomes important to the unfolding narrative. The book, based on a real case that Hoffman covered when she worked for a small upstate New York newspaper, shines a harsh light on violence against women and the men who live within the ugly banality of this evil. Its climactic scenes are simultaneously shocking and inevitable. Pay attention to So Much Pretty. It's mesmerizing.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
“The way investigative reporter Hoffman navigates the line between what is spoken and unspoken, and portrays a community's desire to address any crisis but the one next door make So Much Pretty a staggering read.”
“Very good and very hard to put down . . . If we’re forcing comparisons, I’d add . . . Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel Winter’s Bone for the hardscrabble grit of Smalltown, USA. . . . So Much Pretty looks searingly at the questions of justice and revenge. Many readers will find some of the answers shocking.”—January Magazine
"It's impossible not to be changed after reading this book. It's both haunting and moving, and it brings up issues that need to be addressed in this country and in the world." -Truthout
"Gripping, moving, intelligent and powerful... A truly stunning debut novel."
—The Tattooed Book
"Hoffman’s language is fluid and luminous, and takes on a magnificent glow at key turns. She layers images upon each other until they have a kind of poetic weight: a girl’s fascination with butterflies, a parent’s homily about what lies beneath the stones, the wildness of woods, the courses of rivers. In the end this is a heroic story with a triumphant ending, written by someone who knows how to hew to the task yet take care of her reader. She tells this story the way it has to be told."
“This beautiful, stealthy novel creeps up on the mesmerized reader, subtly drawing new strands into itself until what begins as the suspenseful story of a rural American murder grows into a dark, disquieting and urgently fascinating examination of the violence and concealment practiced by a whole society. By choosing a small town canvas on which to paint her big picture, Hoffman achieves a focused intensity which she holds on the very edge of anger, without once giving in to it. She never surrenders the compassion, insightfulness and humor that make her a masterful navigator of the human heart. This is an impassioned, intelligent and important work of art, and with it Hoffman takes her place in that select group of American novelists including Philipp Meyer and Adam Haslett who, eschewing nihilism and hauteur, write with urgency and passion about what is really going on out there.”
—Chris Cleave, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Little Bee and Incendiary
"So Much Pretty is everything I love in a novel - dark, fascinating, beautifully written, impossible to put down. It marks the beginning of what promises to be an indelible literary career for Cara Hoffman."
-Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family
"So Much Pretty is certain to be talked about—not merely because it is a profound meditation on both public and private violence in small-town America, but for its captivating storytelling which draws you in on a visceral level and leaves you feeling haunted, in the best of ways."
—Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust
"So Much Pretty is a compelling whodunit, an unnerving portrait of just what the back of nowhere looks like, and an arresting meditation on our culture's ongoing acceptance of violence against women. It's powered by both a despairing tenderness and an unflinching rage, each of which, as the novel makes heartbreakingly clear, are more than justified."
-Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand Anyway
"So Much Pretty unravels a narrative that's rich with suspense and moral complexity. Delicately balancing two story lines, Cara Hoffman, dramatizes a death and a disappearance. Along the way, we get caught up in her portraits of those who belong, those who don't, and the irreversible consequences of lives coming together. This story of violence begetting violence is a fine debut."
-Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever
"A passionately angry and shocking book. Cara Hoffman not only discovers the heart of darkness in small town Haeden, but brilliantly dissects it.
-Rosamund Lupton, author of Sister
READ AN EXCERPT
They are looking for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.
Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.
It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.
She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. There is a strong possibility she would have a non-traditional job. That she’s transient; works agriculture or construction or second shift.
She has physical strength and is articulate. Could be speaking English or Spanish or French. Could be in New York or Illinois or Tennessee. Canada or Mexico. Places where it rains all day and places where the grass has burnt to yellow. Could be among hollows between road and field, trails where the creek bed has dried. Could be anywhere.
She could be hitch hiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all.
She may be aloof. She may be sensitive and drawn to helping people.
She is on her own and likely broke, and might be reliant on those she doesn’t know.
Searches peaked in the spring and summer months and they are looking for her still.
As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.
All three of us walked in our sleep.
Later, when I would think about what happened, I would tell myself she was sleepwalking. Acting out a nightmare. Sleepwalking ran in our family. Dreaming while walking. Dreaming while talking. I know this is not an answer. The real answer is too simple.
Did she have health problems? Was she low–birth weight? Did she have headaches? Self-destructive behavior? Sudden changes in grades or friends? No.
Alice was a remarkably consistent soul. Healthy and athletic like her father. At home wherever she was. Happy at school and happy with all the things outside of school. Gymnastics and trapeze. And later, swimming, building, archery, shooting.
Her focus was so joyful, so intense. Like her happiness, when she was little, about swimming in the river, about building the cardboard forest or the paper Taj Mahal. Once she made a mobile of hundreds of origami frogs, locusts, paper dolls, and butterflies.
She was never bored. Had the same friends at sixteen as she’d had at four. Her teachers talked about how she was a “leader.” It was a word they used often, and this is certainly part of the problem. “A Leader.” But they also talked about how she was sensitive to other children, always so caring.
I am not trying to justify a thing. I am not trying to make excuses for my daughter. I am describing it as it was.
Before April 14, the words “I am Alice Piper’s mother” meant very little to anyone but me. Now those words are a riddle, a koan. A thing I have to understand even though nothing will change, even though the phrase “nothing will change” is something we fought against our entire
The years in which we raised her were marked by diminishing returns for our diminishing expectations. But it hadn’t always been that way.
Things were different in the city. We moved because of Constant’s uncle. Because of Gene’s dreams about land and air and autonomy. But also because of me. Because of traffic and noise and sewer smells and the seventy hours a week I worked at the city’s Comprehensive Free Clinic for the Uninsured on First Avenue.
Prior to moving upstate, Gene and I lived on Saint Mark’s and First Avenue. Then later in a two-bedroom apartment on First and Seventh, with Constant and Michelle Mann, who were also done with their residencies and, like Gene and I, planned on working for Doctors Without Borders. We moved to First and Seventh because of the rooftop, so Gene could have space to plant. In those days everyone but Gene was exhausted—sometimes punch-drunk on three hours of sleep a night, nodding off on the subway coming home from Lenox Hill or staggering bleary-eyed in clogs and scrubs from Beth Israel or CFC. We all felt like the walking dead, knew we were in bad shape, envying Gene, especially later, when he was home all day with the baby. In the end, moving to Haeden was all we wanted.
When we drove out to the house and barn through that wet and green countryside, we were excited. We would finally have a place of our own. The apparent beauty and possibility of it all was overwhelming, something we had tried and failed to build for ourselves the last six years in
Even the double-wides and sloping farmhouses with their black POW and American flags seemed oddly majestic with so much land around them, the tiniest trailers close to creeks or ponds.
As we drove in, I was thinking about Michelle when we worked in the clinic together, saying the responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious. How had we missed the obvious benefit of all this land? A whole house and acreage for the cost of one room on the Lower East Side. I was thinking how, the second we got out of the car and brought our boxes inside and wrote Uncle Ross his rent check, this whole thing would start. In those days I could not wait for it to start.
Alice was two then, and we walked inside and put our boxes down and sat on the kitchen floor,nervous and tired from the drive, eating some blueberries we had bought on the way. She had just woken up and her face was placid and her hair was tangled and she leaned against me eating blueberries, her body warm and gentle from sleep. Then evening came in from the fields and lit the place with sound and stars. Peepers called up from the river, and crickets played below the windows in the grass. It was the first time Alice had heard crickets, and we went out on the porch together, Gene and I, watched her listen, quiet and alert and hunkered down, her whole body taking in the sound. Her blue-stained lips parted and her eyes shining.
It was Alice’s happiness, her joy in those moments, that allowed me to stay even years after, when paying attention to the obvious became a horror.
And for a long time we did not regret our singular vision. Our attempt to strip the irony from the slogans we’d come to live by. Phrases that buoyed us and embarrassed us at the same time. “Demand the Impossible,” “Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach,” anarchist sentiments we first took up in the city as a joke, then ultimately to comfort one another, to remind ourselves that we were different from our cohorts. Those words seemed—with all the incessant construction, and the destruction of the natural world, and Gene becoming fixated on “living the solution” and bringing down corporate agribusiness—more poignant at that time than when real revolutionaries scrawled them on the Paris streets in 1968. We might not have been burning cars and shutting down a city, but we were living in the sterile and violent future they had imagined, and we were certainly committed to destroying one culture by cultivating another.
This sensibility was one more way we were sleepwalking, dreaming. We did not stick with our plan. Though all four of us had passed the initial screening process for Doctors Without Borders,only one of us left on assignment. Gene and I were graced with Alice; Constant became plagued
by an American concept of freedom, liquidity, mobility. These changes did not seem pivotal at the time, seemed instead the best possible outcome, exciting, a release. And how could we not admit that what we had been looking for by joining Doctors Without Borders was a release. Absolution from the lifestyle our postresidency careers seemed to necessitate, a lifestyle that was making the four of us—and not our colleagues—sick.
Those early years in Haeden were restful. Literally. Luxurious eight- and ten-hour nights. Waking up to quiet and birds instead of traffic. No six a.m. meetings at the clinic. Each season with its own particular beauty.
Bright, quiet winters snowed in and baking bread together, sitting around the woodstove, each of us silently reading. Summers resonant with the hum and staggered harmony of insects. The meadow in front of our house growing tall and strange from the warm rain. Swimming in the river and tending our vegetable garden. Alice could talk pretty well when we moved, and she
loved the sounds, imitated them. Never herself, she was a frog, a mermaid, a bird. Radiant fall spent roasting and canning peppers with the smell of wood smoke on the cool air. And spring: Alice’s favorite time in the world, when everything comes back to life and it’s warm, with patches of snow, and we would wear shorts and big rubber boots and celebrate the first snowbells and crocuses. The air was lush and still cold and smelled like mud. Alice loved to run along the mowed path all the way to the river. In those early summers she was no taller than the goldenrod, just a head above the jack-in-the-pulpit that flanked the trails between the barn and woods. She loved to climb in the exposed roots of trees along the pebbled riverbank and collect stones and dried skeletons of crayfish. She was fearless.
We expected after a few years our friends would come, build, plant. Once Constant had made the money he wanted, once Michelle had finished her assignment, we would get back to the land, we would live and drink and work by the ideals we’d always had. Mutual Aid, No Boredom.
We expected, when Alice was bigger, we’d have enough money to have a real farm and for me to go back to some kind of practice. But these things never happened, and paying attention to the darker aspects of the obvious became a bad way to live if we wanted to stay happy and make friends.
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.
SO MUCH PRETTY
So Much Pretty is a novel about family, community, and storytelling.
The Pipers are a family built on optimism. On deeply felt ideals and commitment to their community. Claire and Gene moved with their precocious, beguiling daughter Alice to Haeden, New York for a fresh start, to give Alice the freedom and opportunity they always wanted for themselves. In doing so, they unwittingly re-write the story of her life.
Wendy White has strong roots in Haeden, a late-blooming young woman just striking out on her own, but 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.