Wednesday 7 February 2024

Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester (St. Martin’s Press) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Unrequited love and somnambulant sculpting: alternating timelines explore mother/daughter bonds and suppression of women’s voices.

Such a Pretty Smile tells the stories of a mother and daughter dealing with a variety of threats, the most dangerous of which is a serial killer called The Cur. On a deeper level, the novel comments on women having their voices stifled in a society that drives them towards certain behaviours and activities. 

Like many recent horror novels, the action alternates between two timelines. In 2019, eighth-grader Lila Sawyer – a surname with clear implications – has a crush on her attractive but self-absorbed classmate Macie, who is more interested in Cameron, a junior in high school. Macie tries to push Cameron’s awkward brother Andrew onto Lila. To top it off, a murderer who kills young girls is on the prowl. 

The 2004 timeline, which takes place in New Orleans, focuses on Lila’s artist mother Caroline (pre-Lila) juggling several challenges: insomnia, a dying father, and financial troubles. Compounding these issues are the chauvinistic males in her life. Her new husband Daniel, an ambitious artist, envies her natural talents as a sculptor. He moves in artistic circles; she wants nothing to do with them. Then there’s Caroline’s patronizing psychiatrist, who refers to her as “dear” and treats her like a child who doesn’t know what’s good for herself. She starts giving private art lessons to Beth, a middle schooler who’s been in trouble and whose mother pushes her towards being the perfect girl. 

Throughout both narratives, author Kristi DeMeester maintains the threat of girls getting abducted and killed… Beth in 2004 and Lila in 2019. Strong parallels begin to emerge, and the questions accumulate: How much will Lila’s anger escalate as she deals with unrequited love and a dismissive father who’s divorced her mom and married a woman who wants nothing to do with her? What happened at a New Orleans amusement park called Jazzland? Are Caroline’s visions real, or are they just a manifestation of mental illness? And why does Caroline keep waking up to these creepy sculptures she has no recollection of creating? Each of these gets addressed slowly but intriguingly.

What distinguishes this novel from other recent horror novels is the author’s ability to withhold key information – readers sense there’s something off about 2004 Caroline and 2019 Lila. Typically, horror stories involving teens clearly reveal the “monster” right away. Such a Pretty Smile blurs those lines. Douglas J. Ogurek ***

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