Monday, July 27, 2015

PRETTY BABY :: Mary Kubica

"The first time I see her, she is standing at the Fullerton Station, on the train platform, clutching an infant in her arms."

I found Mary Kubica's The Good Girl to be a pretty stellar debut last year (you can read my thoughts here), so it was with great anticipation I dove into her sophomore offering, Pretty Baby. Just as with The Good Girl, I was sucked in immediately by Kubica's writing style and structure. I'll be interested to see if she continues to write in the same format, for despite some minor issues with both works, Kubica is quickly becoming an author I can count on for a compelling and worthwhile read.

Heidi and Chris Wood live in Chicago with their twelve-year-old daughter Zoe. Polar opposites, they are having trouble connecting. Chris, driven by the almighty dollar, works long hours and is rarely home. More troubling is the new "femme fatale" co-worker Heidi is convinced has eyes for him.

Chris isn't blind, he sees Cassidy Knudsen, how different she is from his wife. After fourteen years of marriage, Chris feels Heidi, a bleeding heart who works at a literacy non-profit, has more concern for the well-being of stray cats and her refugee students than for him. His thoughts about a photo of their wedding day tacked to the bulletin board in his office speak volumes:

But there was something telling about that photograph, I thought; our protective glass frame shattered and now here we were, punctured with microscopic holes that might one day tear. Those holes all had names: mortgage, adolescent child, lack of communication, retirement savings, cancer. 

One cold, rainy day, Heidi sees a young girl on the train platform, holding a baby and standing by a battered suitcase, soaked by the rain and obviously malnourished. The girl and the baby fill Heidi's thoughts from that moment on, feeding directly into her need to make everything right. She wonders about their story, how she can help them, ashamed she didn't take action.

When Heidi crosses paths with the girl again, she is bound and determined to help, and soon enough Willow Greer and baby Ruby are staying in the Wood condo, much to the consternation of Chris and Zoe. Who is this girl? A simple runaway? A killer or con on the run? As Chris asks Heidi, "How much can you really know about another person?"

Mysterious and secretive Willow and baby Ruby settle into the house, and with no end to their stay in sight, the stress begins to crack the already fragile family veneer. Chris and Zoe want nothing to do with Willow, want her gone. Heidi, meanwhile, is drawn deeper and deeper into Willow and Ruby's lives, using them to fill a void from her past, and the dynamic threatens catastrophic consequences. It's apparent early on that things go wrong, and the twisty ride to the truth is well worth taking.

Pretty Baby is written from three alternating chapter perspectives: those of Heidi, Chris, and Willow. What I love most about Kubica's style is how she spins the story through each character's perspective and keeps the reader guessing about actual motives, intentions, facts, and past history. You think you know what's going on, who these characters are, only to have that perspective is turned on its ear. It keeps the narrative quite compelling and doubles as a lesson in not judging characters, good or bad, too quickly.

Although a number of the plot devices in both of Kubica's books have been seen many times before, for some reason they don't feel impossibly gimmicky in her hands. Perhaps because she builds credibility with nifty nooks and crannies in her character and story development and also throws in great, authentic twists, I forgive the arcs that toe the cliche line. I'll take strong character study and evolution over a few unique plot points any day.

STREET SENSE: Fans of psychological thrillers and multiple character narration will be well-served by Pretty Baby. Other than a few short side-trips, Kubica keeps the pace steady and her characters engrossing, spinning the story around the various perspectives to a satisfactory, if less than explosive, conclusion. Pick up Pretty Baby, The Good Girl, or both, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  "Whipped cream?" the woman asks, and Willow looks to me for approval. Funny, I think, how in that split second she becomes a child, just at the very mention of whipped cream. She strikes me as an optical illusion, like the famous Rubin's vase: depending on how one looks at it, one of two scenes appear, two profiles, placed face-to-face, or the vase which lies perched between them. They flip-flop before your eyes. Profiles, vase. Profiles, vase. Strong, independent young woman with a baby; helpless young girl with an affinity for hot chocolate and whipped cream.

COVER NERD SAYS: For some reason, I find Kubica's cover art more attractive once I've finished the book. It's almost as if the story informs the images. I would not likely have been drawn to this cover if I didn't know the book was written by Mary Kubica. I can't deny they are beautiful covers, just not up my normal alley.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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