Another book club read, this time a crime novel by an author with a perfect crime writer name (imagine if she wrote romance instead; Forbidden Love, a new luscious bodice-ripper from Karin Slaughter).
The book is about a family destroyed by the unsolved disappearance of the eldest daughter, Julia Carroll, who went missing near her University of Georgia dorm when she was 19. Her father Sam became obsessed with his own investigation, retreating from the rest of his family and ignoring his two remaining daughters, and eventually committed suicide. Sam’s anguished diary entries introduce the central mystery, and serve as one of the three points of view used to tell the story.
Julia’s sister Lydia went off the rails, struggling with drug addiction, poverty and single parenthood. Another sister, Claire, became a pampered trophy wife of Paul Scott, a millionaire architect and by all appearances a perfect loving husband. As the book opens, Lydia and Claire haven’t talked to each other for more than 20 years, but the estranged sisters have a chance to reconnect after two seemingly unrelated things happen. One: Claire’s husband is murdered in a dark alley by a street thug, leaving Claire in a stupor of grief. Two: another young girl named Anna Kilpatrick goes missing, which brings back the painful memories of the sisters’ own loss.
At first I couldn’t put the book down, staying up late and gobbling up 200 pages in a matter of hours. Slaughter does a fantastic job introducing our two leading ladies, who are both compelling and flawed in their own ways, and describing their contrasting lifestyles and personalities with a welcome touch of humour. Then, when certain shocking secrets are revealed, things get very very gruesome and grisly, with the unflinching graphic descriptions of terror and torture suffered by the young women. Maybe not American Psycho bad, but pretty damn harrowing nonetheless. The “you can never fully know what’s going on inside another person” theme is well-trodden, but done very effectively here, and we get to learn more about the rift between Claire and Lydia, and how they chose to cope with the family tragedy.
Then roughly midway, the novel throws in a shocking game-changing twist, which by all rights should have taken tension to a whole new level, but in a weird way it only served to puncture tension, leaving the book flopping about like a deflated balloon. From then on, the rest of the book is painfully predictable, and the repetition of the same overwrought violent imagery ceases to shock and becomes a broken record. You know how, when you read a crime thriller, there usually comes a point near the end where our hero unmasks the villain and their awful deeds, and comes into terrible danger? In Pretty Girls this point occurs midway, and then the book has an impossible task of maintaining tension for another 200 pages and offers nothing but minor revelations the reader can guess anyway. Claire and Lydia’s voices lose their individuality and become much less interesting, and I eventually got tired of reading about how great and amazing Julia was. From what I gathered, this novel is something of a detour for Slaughter, and there’s enough good stuff here to make me want to read more of her novels, but this particular one is only half-successful.