Book Review: Pretty is by Maggie Mitchell

Title: Pretty Is

Author: Maggie Mitchell
Publisher: Orion
Publication date: 2 July 2015

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Lois and Carly-May are just twelve years old when they’re abducted, driven across the country, and imprisoned in a remote, isolated hunting lodge for two months. That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they form a bond which will never be broken . . .

Decades later, both Lois and Carly-May have built new lives and identities for themselves. Lois, a professor of literature, is shaken when an obsessive student reminds her of the man who kidnapped her, a man she saw shoot himself on the porch twenty years before.

Out in LA, Carly-May is drinking too much and watching her beauty-queen looks fade, clinging to the last remnants of a once-promising career as an actress. When she reads a shockingly familiar screenplay, she warily she takes a role she knows is based on events from her own life.

Increasingly haunted by the devastating experience that shaped both their lives, Lois and Carly-May are drawn together again in a world that both echoes and falsifies their beautiful, terrible story.

An enthralling portrait of two haunted young women, this remarkable debut novel explores the very nature of survival.


Pretty Isis Maggie Mitchell’s debut novel and an abduction novel which stands out from the crowd. It tells of two women struggling with their memories of a shared childhood incident.

Chloe (previously Carly May) is a former beauty queen with a moderately successful acting career in Hollywood. When she receives a script, she is shocked to recognise it – it is the story of her life (or, at least, a small but important portion of her life).

At the age of 12, Chloe was abducted, driven across country and held for 6 weeks in a remote cabin in the Adirondacks with another girl. That other girl was Lois, a former spelling bee champion and now an English professor in upstate New York.

Both girls came through their 6 week ordeal alive (unlike their captor Zed who was killed during their rescue) and 20 years later they have carved out relatively successful lives for themselves.

Whilst Chloe has tried to forget the past, Lois has dealt with her experience in a different way and is the secret author of ‘Deep in the Woods’, published under the pen-name Lucy Ledger, a fictionalised account of their abduction and the inspiration for the screenplay.

Nearly 20 years on, the women find themselves facing the public exposure of this shared event.

In addition, Lois finds herself targeted by creepy and intense student Sean. Sean seems to know all about her past and badgers her for more information. Despite being unnerved by his interest and intensity, Lois meets him repeatedly and invents stories to appease his interest. This does cause me to question Lois’ state of mind. Why would she allow herself react in such a way to a student’s inappropriate interest?  She is obviously an accomplished storyteller and that did raise some suspicions in my mind as to the reliability of her narrative.

The story is presented in layers comprised of the women’s memories (flipping between Lois and Chloe’s first-person perspectives), the events of the kidnapping told through extracts from Lois’ novel and the embellished tales that Lois is telling her student. The reader is provided with tantalising snippets of information that will keep them hooked as they question: Why the girls would have climbed willingly into Zed’s car? What was Zed planning on doing with them? What was Zed’s real motive?

The suspense of the tale really hinges around one single question – what really happened in that cabin?

Mitchell’s tale twists and weaves as Lois and Chloe’s story is gradually revealed, resulting in a dramatic finale concluding deep within the woods on the film set. If some of the tale maybe seemed slightly far-fetched, this took little away from my overall enjoyment.

The writing style is absorbing and I enjoyed the shift in perspectives which allowed the reader to see different versions of the ‘truth’. It is interesting to think how a truth can change over time as memories very gradually adjust themselves slightly out of sync with the original memory.

Pretty Isis an atmospheric and intelligent psychological thriller which examines the issues of survival and memory. It takes a fascinating look at the psychological impact of a ‘horrific’ incident which, in reality, wasn’t really all that bad for the victims.

Refreshingly, the book is not reliant on gore or shock tactics to entice the reader, but rather enthrals through its complex plotting and psychological take on the characters.

Pretty Is is a very readable and satisfying story and a solid debut from Mitchell.

About the Author

Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review, and Green Mountains Review. Her story ‘It Would Be Different If’ is included in the Bedford Introduction to Literature. She teaches English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.

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