03/14/2011 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'So Much Pretty': The Ugliest Novel In Years -- I Couldn't Put It Down

In Georgia, someone's proposed a law that would punish women who suffer a miscarriage --- with death. (Not happening.)

In Ohio, they've just held a stethoscope to a pregnant woman's stomach --- in court --- in order to prove a fetus really is a person. (No heartbeat could be heard.)

In Arizona, there's talk of prohibiting the state's medical schools from teaching students how to give abortions. (Should this become law, the med schools would lose their accreditation.)

If I didn't know better, I'd say that some Americans --- may we postulate that most of them are men? --- have a problem with women.

I'll go further: There are some seriously sick men among us. And they don't know it. They think they're okay. This makes them extremely dangerous --- if they're willing to stand up in public and try to use the laws to dehumanize women, what must their private fantasies be like?

"So Much Pretty," a first novel by Cara Hoffman, goes there.

It's ugly stuff. And it reads ugly. There were moments when I wept, when I cursed the dream that came true --- that we would have a daughter.

No other way to say it: "So Much Pretty" is the ugliest book I have read in years --- and I couldn't put it down. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The novel as screed doesn't work for me. It's the literary equivalent of a song about politics. It may define a season, but seasons pass. And the next time you think of that book or that song, it's with nostalgia.

No danger of that here. "So Much Pretty" is a thriller. Not a traditional one --- it's told by many people, the time sequence is fragmented, and, yes, there's a flaw: some extraneous adults sometimes blur and confuse. But it's certainly scary. Alfred Hitchcock said the key to his movies is that he presented fears that were greater than the ones that viewers experienced every day. Well, what's scarier than a girl from a small town who disappears --- and is found dead, months later, less than a mile from her apartment. Whodunnit? Not a hit man from Chicago.

"So Much Pretty" is set in an upstate New York community that's as menacing as the Georgia woods in "Deliverance." Once farmland, now it's not much of anything. It seems entirely possible that a local kid --- or three, or five --- could decide they can take a girl and hold her so they can fuck her any old time they please. And there, just getting to be kind of pretty, is Wendy White, a hometown girl who works as a waitress....

Wendy is one of three females who drive this novel. Another is Stacy Flynn, a feisty young reporter from the local paper. She's from Cleveland, she's won a Polk Award --- she knows Wendy is alive, and close by, and that when Wendy's body is found, "stupidity became a form of politeness." And then there is Alice Piper, 15, a genius, a free spirit --- and, now, an amateur sleuth.

Without dropping any spoilers, the most exciting thing about this book is that it takes a big turn --- it almost begins again --- when Wendy's body is found. Let's just say that someone craves justice for Wendy. And has an astonishing way to get it.

When I finished "So Much Pretty," I was desperate to talk to someone. Why not the author? So Cara Hoffman and I had a phone call...

Jesse Kornbluth: The crime at the heart of "So Much Pretty" suggests that men hate women and regard them as less than human.'

Cara Hoffman: They actually hate both men and women. Women are just easier targets. But yes, the book is, in part, about male hatred of women.

JK: I cannot imagine what it was like to write this book.

CH: I did a lot of research, so the hard days were mostly when I just read cases of women being killed or brutalized. But the actual writing was bracing.

JK: Bracing?

CH: This is a big subject, hidden in plain sight. Turning the research into something I thought could matter --- that was liberating.

JK: Sorry to be stuck here, but I have trouble finding "liberation" in defining a woman as "a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide and then wait in line to rape..."

CH: I have a woman's body. Of course that was hard to write. But to write that line is an act of resistance. And writing it was a privilege. And writing almost always puts me in a focused, altered state --- whatever people take Adderall for, I've already got.

JK: You ask in the book: "How disposable is a woman's life?" And the answer...

CH: Very. Every single day, every half hour, someone is disposing of a woman's life. And that is very entertaining in this country. Look at "CSI" --- it usually begins with a female victim. Look at the news. As much as possible, media links to sex. You see a piece about a man who sets his girlfriend on fire; the picture is of her in a bikini.

JK: There's a chilling line in the book: "A man can only take so much pretty walking back and forth in front of him." I don't think that line would work so well in a city.

CH: Yes, it's a more rural attitude. In rural areas throughout the world, women's rights are paltry at best.

JK: In real life, is there a cure for men who have, to put it simply, too much testosterone?

CH: I'm not a sociologist. I'm a fiction writer.

JK: You have a son. What do you tell him about others of his gender?

CH: He's a feminist --- naturally. He's interested in social justice.

JK: Do you see him as exceptional --- or has there been a generational shift?

CH: I think a lot of boys don't have the same difficulty with gender issues. Every time something positive happens for gays, things get better for women too --- homophobia and misogyny are linked.

JK: What are your relations with men like?

CH: Fulfilling.

[Cross-posted from]