…I never knew: Dead girls aren’t actually beautiful.
3.5 but it’s a hard .5
there are a lot of thumbs-down reactions to this book, and i definitely understand the reasons why, and i suspect that if had i read this during any. other. time. i would myself have been less entertained by it, but honestly, these days a book gets points for the basic feat of ‘holding my attention,’ with the vig of extra credit accruing the longer it keeps me distracted from the multitude of ways the world is falling apart around me.
i really liked little’s first novel, Dear Daughter, and i’ve been looking forward to something new from her for YEARS. and while i felt lousy about how circumstances conspired to prevent me from reading my ARC until three months after the damn thing pubbed, i was grateful to have it on hand for these time-slippery Lost Days of Quarantine.
don’t get me wrong—i didn’t think this was nearly as good as Dear Daughter, but it was exactly what i needed for the me i am now; it was light and charming and moved along with the merry pace of scuffy the tugboat, and it taught me how to spell tszujing, a word i hadn’t even realized i’d never seen written out.
it’s a ‘murder on an isolated island’ story, with ‘smalltown secrets’ involving ‘a many years ago, potentially connected murder,’ all of which are my kind of mystery tropes. however, the mystery of it all is not this book’s strongest element—the murders are treated pretty lightly from corpse-to-conclusion, and the tone is as close to a cozy as it gets without actually being a cozy, so a gritty crime thriller this is not.
it’s pure character-driven stuff, and if you don’t like the driver, you will hate this ride. potentially-alienating protagonists seem to be little’s MO; the blistering antihero in Dear Daughter was dark and unapologetically unlikeable, while Pretty as a Picture has a lighter and more humorous tone, with a different sort of acquired-taste protagonist.
i don’t have the diagnostic know-how to pin her specific collection of anxieties down with any more accuracy than “neurodivergent,” but it’s enough to get us where we need to go. she’s in that category where characters with indeterminate social disorders defined by eccentricities and awkwardness who are exceedingly competent professionally get grouped, escorted by a dramatic voice jazz-handing the word “spectruuummm.”
marissa dahl is a film editor who’s great at reading a scene, bad at reading a room. she’s deeply antisocial, a characteristic both innate and nurtured by a profession which finds her sitting alone in dark windowless rooms for hours, squinting at people pretending to be other people.
she’s a tough sell in an industry where getting a reputation for being “difficult” is only forgivable if you’re a man, or a very certain kind of woman, What I wouldn’t give to be granted one-tenth the behavioral leeway a man allows a leggy Scandinavian by default. she’s uncomfortable around people, she has difficulty following conversations, she’s frequently agitated, trapped in recursive loops of her thoughts, but is soothed by repetitive motions, or patterns. etc.
fortunately, her long-term bestie amy has become something of a rising star in the directing biz, and working together has given marissa the opportunity to earn a reputation for high-quality work without having to actively pitch herself in any rooms, because her pathological inability to sell herself ? girl, same.
Sometimes I think everything wrong with my life can be located in the space between what I should have said and what actually came out of my mouth. No matter how hard I try, no matter how well I prepare, the right words are, for me, forever out of reach. Not because they catch in my throat. A cat hasn’t gotten my tongue. None of the usual phrases apply. It’s a more comprehensive kind of collapse. When faced with any real conversational pressure, my personality just goes offline, AWOL, and no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t respond. Catastrophic system failure.
her connection to movies runs deeper than aesthetic appreciation and technical skills; film is how she navigates social interactions—matching IRL facial expressions against a mental archive of actors to determine someone’s mood; to extract cues on tone or subtext, to mirror her behavior.
she also uses film scenes to access or translate her own feelings:
It’s possible I’ve spent so much time watching movies that the language of film has infiltrated some primal, necessary part of my brain. I catch myself processing my own emotions in scenes, in shots, in dialogue. Like when there’s a burn in my sinuses and a sick clench in the back of my throat, but my brain doesn’t supply a single word (sadness). Instead, it offers up a two-second clip from Terms of Endearment: Huckleberry Fox, inconsolable, at Debra Winger’s bedside.
It isn’t easy, or efficient, or necessarily clear. It would be much simpler, certainly, if I’d only seen a handful of movies, and if those movies had been directed by Steven Spielberg. Maybe then my emotions would be more manageable, more straightforward, a line instead of a scatter plot. But like Josh said, I have a whole encyclopedia up in there, and Huckleberry Fox at Debra Winger’s bedside is very different from Troy Bishop at Debra Winger’s bedside is very different from Shirley MacLaine at Debra Winger’s bedside.
I press my ring fingers into the corners of my eyes and try, once again, to figure myself out.
Eventually, it comes to me.
A man in a bathroom. He’s sitting on the counter next to the sink, one knee pulled up to his chest so he can fit his foot under the faucet. He’s barefoot, bleeding, shirtless.
His walkie-talkie crackles.
“I’m here, John.”
He lifts the radio to his face.
“Look,” Bruce Willis says, “I’m starting to get a bad feeling up here.”
So that’s what this is.
ymmv, but to me, that’s some enjoyable schtick. and it’s like getting a bunch of mini-mysteries within the novel, where you can try to guess the film being referenced and show off your film-trivia knowledge…to yourself. but that’s quarantine, baby!
if you didn’t like that, you probably won’t like the book, because there are many different ways her particular quirks and tics manifest throughout, and that’s just one of ’em.
ordinarily, i am impatient with twee and whimsy and quirk, and there were times when i felt the onset of annoyance rumbling up in me, “we get it, you’re awkward,” to the extent that—no lie—at least twice, i stopped reading, leaned back, looked up and all around me like bastian to brace myself before diving back in.
this is the closest GIF i could find. i know. i’m as relevant as my pop culture references and nooooobody cares.
the point is that this character skirted dangerously close to “too much” on several occasions, but managed to pull back just in time. for my tastes, anyway. and i’m probably just getting soft like tenderized meat from being battered by
but she didn’t annoy me. even more surprisingly, i wasn’t annoyed (okay, much) by suzy and grace; the two babytween detectives that latch onto her with their back-and-forth bestfriendness and the “we’re adorable” forced-humor of their true crime podcast’s transcripts that pop up between chapters.
i enjoyed the film references and the character work and even though the ‘awkwardness played for laughs’ was a too-often-visited well, marissa’s discomfort was not always treated comedically, and the way she phrased her experiences of anxiety was often vivid and lovely:
The best way I can think to describe it is that there’s a beehive in my chest, and most people upset the bees. The nearer they get, the worse it is—and direct contact makes them swarm.
and maybe i was able to tolerate her because she’s so “these days” relatable to me.
I wish I could say that I’m in shock, that I’m reeling from everything that’s happened, but the truth is, I’m always like this when I have to be out in the world for too many days at a time. I have to take to my bed afterward, every time, like a Regency matron with a case of the nerves.
But I suppose it doesn’t help that in the past two weeks I discovered a dead body, tracked down a murderer, and made not one but two phone calls to strangers.
change “days” to “minutes,” and that’s how i feel now, in my #stayathome life, where it’s a red-letter day if i talk to two different people and go to the grocery store.
in any case.
the mystery is whatever—it wraps with a corny confrontation and then there’s twenty-or-so pages of marissa just processing. it’s not the psych suspense thriller i was expecting, but i liked it for what it was—a character study set in a mystery plot.
the narrative arc was somewhat predictable, but nonetheless achieved; a socially skittish individual separated from her only emotional support and forced to make new connections with the strangest assortment of (platonic) bedfellows (because, also like a cozy, there’s nothing romantically scandalous here), who learns how to extend her comfort zone’s hard limits to be someone else’s emotional support.
and in the middle of all of that growth, there’s murder and attempted murder and theft, some shoving, and also a cat.
someone should have stopped my babbling 8 paragraphs ago. back to bed!