Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for So Much Pretty includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
So Much Pretty is a novel about family, community, and storytelling. The Pipers are a family built on optimism and on a deep-rooted commitment to community. Claire and Gene have moved with their precocious, beguiling daughter, Alice, to Haeden, New York, for a fresh start and to give Alice the freedom and opportunity they have always wanted for themselves. In doing so, they will unwittingly rewrite the story of her life. Stacey Flynn is a reporter, both a seeker and teller of stories. It is Flynn, gritty, relentless, and ultimately reckless, who will piece together the mysterious disappearance of a local girl, Wendy White—rebuilding her existence from all available fragments and forging a path to the truth.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The story’s prologue is an ominous introduction. How does this dark overture—focused on searching out something that isn’t easily found— frame the story?
2. Describe Claire and Gene Piper’s relationship. How did having Alice affect them, especially in comparison to their doctor friends? Do you consider them to be happy?
3. We know from the start that Alice Piper will end up in some kind of trouble, though we don’t learn what it is until later. How does knowing (and not knowing) affect your view of her as the story unfolds?
4. Stacy Flynn says she sees a vast emptiness in Haeden. What drew her there besides just a big story? Was she looking for emptiness or a blank canvas?
5. The idea of things not being what they appear to be is a constant theme throughout the novel, such as when Gene Piper muses that “people would continue to use words like ‘farm’,’ forest’, and ‘town’ long after the words no longer fit the reality of the landscape.” (21) He thinks “Haeden was being collectively dreamed by its inhabitants.” What does he mean? Does this apply just to Haeden, or is there a greater significance to the idea?
6. Michelle Mann tells her friend, “It is the duty of every intelligent person to pay attention to the obvious. (4)” In what ways do the Piper idealism and the townspeople’s fixed ideas cause them to miss things that are right in front of them? What are the things they miss?
7. Flynn is suspicious that Alex Dino, the police chief, knows more about Wendy White’s death than he is admitting. Is this Flynn’s desire for intrigue, or just a suspicion? What does the answer turn out to be?
8. Wendy White didn’t want to leave Haeden or go to college. Was money the only reason she stayed while her friends left? What else kept her there?
9. After White’s death, Flynn describes Haeden’s reaction: “The silence feels like calm. But it’s a point beyond rage.” (59) What is Flynn saying here? Is there truth behind it?
10. How do Flynn’s attitude and outlook change after living in Haeden and dealing with its residents? In what ways does she remain the same?
11. The novel is a pastiche of different parts of the characters: letters, audio files, and Alice’s school papers. Why does the author include these? In what ways do they add to the story for you? What do these pieces say about Alice as she grows older?
12. The story is full of contradictions: Gene not approving of his friend Constant’s pharmaceutical career, though the money supports his family; the police investigating many angles except for White’s boyfriend; the family with the oldest ties to the community poisoning the land and acting as a subsidiary of a large corporation. What do you think these contradictions say about Haeden and its residents?
13. When Theo moves away, why does he think Alice won’t be okay without him? How does he think using their secret play world would protect them?
14. Alice describes the butterflies as “camouflaged as one thing—so they could one day be another”. (162) What larger symbolism does this have in connection to the story?
15. Gene and Claire wanted to live off the grid; how does this affect them as parents? Was the decision fair to Alice? Did they give her too much space, or not enough?
16. Discuss the author’s use of pacing and how it affects the story’s tension. How does the story move as the tension builds?
17. Do you agree with Alice’s final actions? Although legally wrong, was she morally correct?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOKCLUB
- Become a journalist like Flynn and write some fictitious stories about the characters you’ve met in the novel, or write about people in your own community.
- Alice loved The Wind in the Willows. Devote some time at the end of your club meeting to discussing this classic of children’s literature.
- After they are separated, Alice and Theo correspond by letters. Whom did you write letters to when you were young? Why not reconnect with an old friend using paper and pen?
- Violence against women is a key component of the story. Volunteer at a local women’s shelter or crisis line, or raise funds for these organizations with your fellow book club members. You can get more information on how to become involved at the following websites:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: www.ncadv.org
Family Violence Prevention Fund: www.endabuse.org
National Online Resource Center for Violence Against Women: www.vawnet.org
Men Can Stop Rape: www.mencanstoprape.org
One in Four: www.oneinfourusa.org
A CONVERSATION WITH CARA HOFFMAN
You come from upstate New York yourself. How much of this story is autobiographical?
The landscape, the dialect, and the cultural sensibilities depicted in So Much Pretty are certainly based on many years of observation and straight reportage. Haeden is based on a real town upstate, a place where the cultural divide is pronounced and complex. The autobiographical elements of the book are disparate. Obviously I share a number of traits with the character Stacy Flynn and have worked on the kinds of stories she covers in the book, but as with all authors, there are various elements of my personal experiences seeded throughout the novel. Upstate New York is an interesting place—the aura of a Grimm’s Fairy tale hangs about it.
The story is based on a real case. Why did you want to write about such a difficult topic? What type of research did you do?
So Much Pretty was inspired by one specific case, but in reality the circumstances are extremely common. I wanted to write about this topic because I feel that we are inundated with violence and it becomes something that drives our aesthetics, becomes entertaining— especially sexual, predatory violence. We’re told that these things are shocking, but really they are very common. There is a banality and a predictability to it all; the disappearance, the search, and the inevitable discovery of a dead woman or girl, who has nearly without exception been sexually assaulted. When I was a young reporter working for a small independent publication and writing about this topic, I was shocked by how easy it was for people to be scandalized and vicariously thrilled and somehow vindicated by the sexual assault and murder of a person, a member of the community, because of gender. As for research, I immersed myself in archives and online sources and read several hundred—probably close to a thousand—accounts of women killed by partners, strangers, and family members. And I had primary source material from interviews I’d done in my early twenties as part of a story I‘d worked on. Every week that I was researching for the book, more cases would pop up in the national and local news as they always do: Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, the sixteen-year-old gang raped outside of a school dance, and the unidentified woman’s body found in a trailer ten miles down the road, and the PhD candidate who cut his wife‘s throat. In our culture it’s incredible to me how accustomed we are to the image of a brutalized, naked, dead woman.
Why did you choose to write the story in the manner you did—discussing the fallout to an action readers don’t see until the end?
I wanted to write this novel in fragments. Like collecting the pieces of something that has shattered. There were two main reasons for my writing the book this way. One was so that it would reflect the process Flynn or any reporter or cop goes through to get information, often from unreliable or compromised sources. And the other was to mirror the psychological structure of denial—so that the reader experiences that denial, that thing hidden in plain sight from the self. I wanted the reader to be party to the amassing of details and stories about an event that is already known, deeply and intuitively felt, but not yet admitted to, revealed or reconciled. This is also why the narrative moves between different periods of time and different narrators. I wanted there to be a sense of grappling with what is known and what is hidden.
Alice is at once athletic and smart, but she also lives in her own world. Where did the character come from in your mind?
I envisioned Alice Piper as a very traditional character—a classic epic hero and a classic antihero. An outsider who has many skills, who is fearless, who comes to a place that is controlled by an unacknowledged power, who defeats it though her birthright and training and then moves on. This kind of narrative and this kind of character is very old. But I suspect Alice seems unusual in part because she’s not “High Plains Drifter”—she’s a young girl and generally girls play other traditional roles throughout popular culture and literature; their inner lives are still for the most part uncharted territory. I conceived of Alice as someone who is driven to achieve and understand and fix the things that she sees as wrong in the world, then suffers a disillusionment that causes her to act. In her mind these actions are clearly her ethical obligation. “ It would hardly be rational,“ she says, “to accept that I am a thing made of flesh that men capture, hide and wait in line to rape.“ Alice is the natural product of her environment, her upbringing, and her parents’ ideologies. Her disillusionment and horror and rage are common coming-of-age experiences for women, ones we all have but don’t talk about. I believe there are many girls like Alice Piper in the world, and their numbers are growing, girls with rich inner lives, capable of things we can barely anticipate. That’s why I created the character.
In the end, Alice seems to get away free. Why did you choose to end the story this way?
Every central character in So Much Pretty gets away—Alice, Dale, Flynn, Tom Cutting, the Pipers, Constant. But it’s a haunted kind of freedom for everyone.
How is your work as a journalist affected your storytelling? Is it an easy switch to make?
I have always written fiction or creative nonfiction in addition to reporting, and don’t feel it’s difficult making the transition from one form of writing to the other. I think this is a pretty common experience. Changing careers from reporter to novelist has been the traditional trajectory of writers for the last century; it’s only been in the past few decades that creative writing has been “professionalized” through the university system and the MFA. So, yes, the switch was very easy to make. The conventions of being a reporter helped me immensely as a fiction writer. Remaining deadline-driven and being focused on accuracy, patterns of speech, detail, and the economy of language became second nature to me as a reporter, and those skills have served me well as a fiction writer. Reporting is an excellent foundation. Working in a newsroom beats you down and gives you real-world writing and—maybe more importantly—real-world social skills. Reporting makes you skeptical, reveals how people’s lives are interesting and rich and serious, demands that you research before putting ink on the page, and exposes you to intense criticism. It also provides great discipline; you get work done while phones are ringing, the scanner is going off, and five or six people are talking right next to you. You have to write coherently and objectively about things that may be upsetting or distracting, and you can’t make excuses or you‘ll be fired. Essentially, reporting provides enormous insights and busts your chops at the same time, which is a great way to learn how to be a novelist.
What is your writing process? How long did it take to
write this story?
It took me a year to write So Much Pretty, but for a long time I had been thinking about the story and researching related topics, like environmental issues, the transformation of rural America, violence against women, and school shootings, and the convergence of all these seemingly discrete social issues. As far as the process is concerned I don’t know that I have one routine way of doing things. I like to outline several projects and work on them simultaneously, so that if I get distracted with one I have something to move on to and immerse myself in. I’ve done most of my writing in the same room with a child playing Legos under the table, telling me his ideas, insisting he’s a mouse who works as a lineman for the cable company, or just singing loudly. I wrote the first draft of So Much Pretty with this now older child’s punk band practicing in the attic of my apartment, and sometimes I had to “ask” them to stop. Quiet is nice, but after a while I learned I didn’t need it in order to work. If there is any process that I believe in, it’s just relaxing and knowing that all external sensory information is going to be a benefit somehow, especially in writing fiction. Remaining a part of the real world is the big challenge for writers. You can’t write about people’s lives if you take yourself out of the equation and limit your emotional and intellectual existence to things going on in your head—that‘s what dreaming is for. I guess my process has to do with being awake and then writing things down, regardless of what is going on around me. Writing is no mystery, it’s a trade, a job like any other.
What is the message that you’d like this novel to send to readers?
What projects are you working on now?
I’m writing my second novel, which I am really happy about— it’s a world I am very excited to enter every day. In addition I’m digging through journals I kept when I lived in Athens, and researching a book of nonfiction that I hope to write next year, and also collaborating on a screenplay.