Published January 18th 2022 by St. Martin's Press A  biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stoppin...

Book Review || Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester

Published January 18th 2022 by St. Martin's Press

A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them.

There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.

2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it.

2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancĂ© is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.

As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty. 

As the synopsis says, this book is a feminist narrative for those told to "sit down, shut up, and smile pretty." While I would probably classify it as a modern thriller, it does have horror elements. However, the absolute horror in it is how the women and girls are overlooked, scrutinized, and discounted. It does feature heavily on mental illness and the treatment of such so those with triggers might best pass this one by.

The story is told in alternating fragments by unreliable narrators: Caroline in 2004 and her daughter, Lila in 2019. The novel begins with the figure known as The Cur taking another girl and leaving only her rent and battered body. Mother Caroline knows more than she is letting on and her daughter, Lila at thirteen, is ongoing changes that are leaving her angry and confused. To compound everything, Lila is feeling smothered by her mother's protective behavior. Throw in a decrepit amusement park, the site of Caroline's disappearance as a child, and there is much more to the story than we at first know. 

One thing to address is that the "crazy woman" trope has been used in so many ways and is honestly one of the most insulting tropes out there. Having men quickly brush off behavior that doesn't comply with their expectations and therefore, deem it as madness, is only one of the many ways that women are disregarded. Thus, the stigma of mental illness continues. In Such a Pretty Smile, both mother and daughter are questioning if what they are experiencing is reality or some construction of the figurative demon inside. While this trope has been abused often—insinuating the hysteria of women—in this novel it serves as a reminder of how men are quick to overlook and ignore women. Unfortunately, it almost became a caricature of itself. Every single man in this story is painted with the same brush of being the superior intellect: the outclassed artist boyfriend, the neglectful and distracted father, and the patronizing psychologist. Had there been one supportive healthy male figure in the book, I think it would have elevated the feminist theme.

There was something about the way this story was told that maintained my interest in spite of the waffling narratives. While at times, the novel sped along, it unfortunately also tarried overlong in a few places. The vast majority of the story carried more questions obfuscating the threat. I had no qualms with the writing itself; its language was darkly descriptive and compelling. I was left dissatisfied with its ending though. Was the beast schizophrenia, hormonal, familial? After an incredibly long build-up to the finale, I felt like I was left with more answers instead of a sense of completion. Still, it was a memorable read, though an unusual, more introspective one than normal.