Pretty Baby, the second novel from Chicagoan and bestselling author Mary Kubica, centers on a few days in life of the Wood family, whose Matriarch, Heidi, has invited an enigmatic homeless girl, Willow, infant child in tow, into their Lakeview home. What begins as an act of goodwill on Heidi’s part slowly morphs into something much more sinister. Willow’s and Heidi’s tragic pasts are slowly revealed through a mixture of flashbacks and a police interrogation, uncovering a complicated web of ulterior motives and dark secrets.
The fascinating disparity between the family’s surface and subconscious intentions is perhaps Kubica’s biggest achievement with Pretty Baby. Heidi, for example, in practically her every action is simultaneously unreasonably selfless and insufferably selfish. She spends her life helping others, never taking a day off from her work at a non-profit, going above and beyond to help those much less fortunate than herself, much to the chagrin of her husband and daughter, too often pushed to the periphery of Heidi’s life in favor of whichever unfortunate soul seems to be occupying her attentions at that moment. Indeed, it is in Heidi’s selflessness that her selfishness resides; her constant need to help others is often, whether she realizes it or not, unmistakably self-serving. Particularly when it comes to inviting Willow into her family’s home, completely disregarding how her family may feel, not because it’s the right thing to do, but, as it turns out, because it gives her a chance to raise that second child she always dreamed of, but due to personal tragedy (read: cancer), was never able to make a reality.
Kubica does a fantastic job of developing Heidi’s relationship with Chris into one that has depth in its complications and conflicts, and is much more than the simple “opposites attract”-type couple they appear to be on the surface. While Heidi, the goodwill martyr, works for a non-profit, Chris is an investment banker, a job at which he spends the majority of his waking hours. He is adamantly opposed to his wife’s unshakable philanthropy in inviting a stranger into their home. Yet, in a familial sense, it is Chris who devotes his life to others. He is unhappy with the job he does because it keeps his wife and daughter in the comfortable life they have become accustomed to. For example, Heidi makes outlandish demands for items such as a $1,000 gold chain from which to hang her father’s wedding ring, and Chris laments that the money could have gone toward a family vacation. He also worries for his wife’s and daughter’s safety when Heidi seems to have lost the ability to do so, to the point where he demands they all sleep together in the same bed. And, even in his moments of unfaithfulness, the long-suffering Chris still remains devoted to his wife.
In their respective designated chapters, Kubica reveals with expert pacing the tensions of their marriage that slowly ferment below the surface, setting up a gripping interplay between Chris’s lusting after a coworker and Heidi’s heartbreaking jealousy and mistrust rooted in the loss of her child, a loss which she never got over, a loss through which Chris lost his wife to unending sorrow.
However, somewhat to its detriment, this conflict between Heidi and Chris makes up a teasingly small part of the story, which, as it gains momentum, concentrates more on the tragic circumstances of both Heidi’s and Willow’s pasts, as the seemingly endless depths of their despair are revealed. The extent of the horror and sadness Kubica’s characters endure becomes overwhelming by the novel’s end; particularly as it seems an attempt to absolve Heidi and Willow of their wrongdoings, nullifying any complexities in their actions. By the end of the novel, Willow, at just sixteen, has experienced a life about as horror-filled and harrowing as any other character in literature, while Heidi has suffered a family death from which she never recovered, cervical cancer, a life-saving abortion, and a hysterectomy.
These woes anesthetize the characters against any questioning of their actions. Of course these characters would snap, of course they would lose the ability to make sound judgments on the morality and repercussions of their behavior, of course they’re going to do something completely beyond the realms of reason and sanity; it would be strange if they didn’t. Surely, these characters would have much more depth of complexity were they not struggling under a ton of tragedy, were all their actions not simply explainable with a wave of the hand: “They’ve had hard lives.”
Undeniably, the novel is remarkable in places, and aside from the prose, which is, in places, lackluster at best, with confusing metaphors littering its pages (early in the novel, an El train is described as slowing “its way into the loop, careening around twists and turns”), it can be said Pretty Baby is a gripping literary thriller. However, Kubica spends too much effort on keeping the reader turning the pages, as opposed to giving them something to remember; it becomes too melodramatic, the characters are pushed too far beyond the realms of reason, and the most memorable aspects of the novel—the everyday struggles in response to those tragedies—are left by the wayside.
July 2015, MIRA
$24.95, hardcover, 384 pages
—Reviewed by William Wright