Even Stevens’s CBR-III review #14: So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman

So Much Pretty is ostensibly about the discovery of the body of a local woman, Wendy White, and local newspaper editor Stacy Flynn’s fight to find out what happened to her. The murder is also particularly affecting to 15 year old Alice Piper, a local student and genius. As they both work to find out the truth about Wendy’s murder, a second violent crime occurs and shakes up the town. This is what the book jacket tells you this book is about, but it isn’t really about that at all.

Part of what drew me to this book (aside from the several very positive reviews I read) was that it is set in Haeden, just outside of Syracuse, NY which is about an hour from me. Several other areas are also mentioned: Geneseo, Elmira, Chemung County. All of these places are ones that I know and have been to and are part of my upbringing. One of the things that the book jacket advertises, and that does actually play out in the book, is that Flynn and the Pipers have a hard time adjusting to life in Haeden because of the small town setting and people still regarding them as outsiders, despite having lived there for several years. I have lived in a couple of small towns and had several friends in many others, so I was interested to see not just Hoffman’s treatment of small town life, but her treatment of small town life in western/central New York, the places I grew up.

Let me get this out of the way: I hated this book. It made me incredibly angry, and not in the good way when the author provokes you with outstanding writing. No, this book is heavily biased and poorly written and I was glad it only had a 285 page length because I couldn’t stand to read any more of it. Hoffman tells her story from multiple views, including Flynn, Alice Piper and her parents as well as a couple of her parents’ friends, and also Wendy White. Wendy is relegated to a few chapters and talks about how she is basically ignored by most people who assume she is stupid or dim. Well, I feel that the author thinks the same thing, as she ignores Wendy for most of the book, just barely covering the details of what happened to her. No, Hoffman needs the rest of the book to use her for her personal views and fact spewing.

I’ll start with the least troublesome aspects of the book. The multiple voice storytelling (also told in past tense) is one that can work in the hands of a skilled writer, but here none of the characters are really developed enough to care about any of them and it leaves a feeling of disconnect. In fact, I’m not sure that’s actually due to the multiple characters telling the story, so much as that Hoffman constructs her cast as broad caricatures who don’t really have anything to connect to because they don’t feel like real people. Furthermore, I never got the feeling that she even really liked any of her characters, even the “good” guys. Which leads me to my biggest issue with this book. This book was essentially one long rant about how small town people are narrow minded idiots and the outsiders like Flynn and the Pipers (all of them being transplants from other cities) are smart, open-minded and very self-aware people who are badly mistreated by the mean little town folk. To further illustrate this, we get a couple of chapters from the view of towns people to show just how ignorant they are. The Pipers are shown as gentle doctors who want to save the environment and live off the land, and even have a trapeze and unicycle, because of course they do. Hoffman has a lot to say about class differences and oppression by those who want to have power. Again, it’s not a very well developed argument other than Big Business and Corporations are evil and again, small town people are all, obviously, small minded hicks.

There is a twist at the end involving the second crime, that not only was I beyond caring about by the time I reached it but is also mind-numbingly stupid and doesn’t compute with even the meager character development we’re given. There are a few highlights in this book, mostly when we are given Alice’s perspective, who is smart and sweet, but they are not frequent enough, with little depth, and they do not make up for the rest of this awful book. I cannot stress enough how much you should skip this book.

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