Pretty Baby, Mary Kubica, author, Cassandra Campbell, Tom Taylorson, Jorjeana Marie, narrators
I have read a lot of suspense novels, and this one is one of the best I have read in ages. The author did not have resort to explicit sex or foul language to make her point. It was cleverly written, and from the first word until the last, there were surprises.
The story is told from the perspective of four different personalities. Willow Greer, Chris and Heidi Wood, and Claire Dalloway. Rolling out in alternate segments, as each tells their own story, the mystery and tension continue to rise until the end.
Claire Dallaway is 8 years old, and her mother loves her more than peanut butter loves jelly. She has a younger sister, Lily, who is two years old and she is very close to her, often taking care of her while her parents are out. They live very modestly in Ogalalla, a rural town in Nebraska. Claire is a very capable and very happy little girl until the day a stranger knocks on the door and brings very bad news. Claire and Lily are orphans. An automobile accident has ended the lives of their parents. The Department of Family Services takes over and soon, Lily, who is young, is adopted and they are separated.
Claire, at 8-years old, is not so lucky, but when she is about 9, Joseph and Miriam show up and pretend to be related to her. They have two sons, older than Claire, Matthew and Isaac, and as a family, they seem picture perfect. Joseph had wanted to become a priest, but he was not celibate, and he married the girl he impregnated, giving up his dream. Instead, he became a Professor of Religious Studies, a seeming pillar of society. His wife was mentally ill, but when medicated, hid it well. The problem was, she was rarely medicated. Joseph was a hard taskmaster. He literally erased Claire’s past by destroying all evidence of her family, even forcing her to tear up her photos. Soon, he is forcing her to do other things, things only a disturbed man would make a child do. Claire is no longer a very happy, little girl. Claire is a prisoner. At nine years old, she does not go to school, never leaves the house and is basically Miriam’s attendant. She helps with household chores and cooking. Joseph threatens her with all sorts of biblical horror stories and even threatens to do terrible things to Lily which terrifies her and keeps her obedient.
She has no contact with anyone in the family except Joseph and Miriam, until one night, when she was ten or eleven, Matthew, six years older than Claire, began to visit her. He talks to her and tells her odd little facts, like “did you know that cockroaches can live for a week without their heads?” He secretly leaves her books to read. He sneaks her out of the house and takes her to the library. Time goes by. Matthew moves out, but comes back and visits her. When Joseph discovers he has been sneaking her out of the house, tragedy ensues. At sixteen, Claire is on the run, alone, frightened and unprepared. She has a suitcase and money that Matthew has provided for her. She and Matthew both disappear, but not in the same direction.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Heidi Wood, a woman who works for a literacy program begins to notice a girl with a crying baby on the train platform she goes to daily. The teen, she thinks, can’t be more than 15 or 16. Heidi is described as a caregiver by nature; she is immediately drawn to the girl and wants to help her. She manages to convince the girl to come home with her, to get cleaned up, to have a decent meal, and to get out of the wet weather plaguing Chicago.
Chris Wood is a bit of a workaholic, preoccupied and unaware of the trouble brewing in his home. He works in Investment Banking, traveling frequently for his job, and Heidi has become a little jealous of a new statuesque female associate, Cassidy Hudson, that joined his firm and works with him on projects. Heidi is older than Cassidy and although beautiful and well-built, her shape had changed from the natural results of age and pregnancy. Although she had wanted a larger family, she could no longer bear children because during her second pregnancy, it was discovered that she had Cancer and had to have an abortion and some serious surgery to save herself. The choice to save her own life, over the future child’s life, tormented her, but she said nothing to anyone and would not seek help.
Zoe is the 12-year old only child of Chris and Heidi. She goes to private school. When her mother brings home the teenager, Willow Greer and her infant, Ruby, Zoe is resentful and also surprised. Heidi will bridge no argument against the teen from her husband or her daughter and soon becomes inordinately involved with the baby. She begins calling her Juliet, the name she had given the child she had to abort, even though the sex of that child was never known.
The teenager Willow is not communicative and it soon became obvious that she had been abused. She did not like to be touched and did not seem to understand how to properly care for the child. She is very secretive about her past. Heidi became more and more involved with her, showing her how to properly care for Ruby, buying necessities, and then taking over and caring for the child herself. If she kept Willow with them for more than 48 hours without notifying the authorities, it would become an illegal act, no longer an act of kindness, but although mindful of that fact, she began to ignore it and believe that she would not be punished for doing something kind for someone in need.
Heidi begins to lie to her husband and her daughter. She begins to neglect Zoe. She begins to suspect her husband of infidelity. She begins a rapid descent into paranoia, and begins to imagine many other things with devastating consequences. She behaves erratically, makes false accusations, and throws Willow out of the house, refusing to let her take the child.
As the story unwinds, closely kept secrets are exposed. Willow has a past. The child has another past. The system proved to have sorely failed Willow. The reader watches as a human being breaks down from hidden emotional pain, a human being who never recovered from the loss of her uterus or her aborted child. The reader witnesses the cruelty and depraved behavior of a man who represents himself as G-d-fearing. Who, if anyone, will be punished for all of the acts of injustice, even those made in an effort to bring justice home?
All of the threads of the story are knitted together perfectly at the end. There are no unanswered questions. There is a roller coaster ride to a very satisfying conclusion. The book serves a greater purpose. It shines a light on the overworked social services and the incompetence of some of the professionals within an overburdened, underfunded system. It exposes the confused state of mind of someone mentally ill, emotionally disabled and unable to ask for help until they no longer recognize they need it. It illuminates the apathy, blindness and distance people some put between themselves and those they witness suffering, often ignoring or not understanding what they are faced with and are unable to provide the proper guidance or help. Sometimes, it is dangerous to look the other way, but often, we all take the easy way out.
The young woman we now know as Claire simply slipped through the cracks, partly because of a system without proper resources and staff and partly because of dishonest people who sought to do harm to others. Sometimes, those capable of doing evil are smarter than those who are the do- gooders. The perception shown by the author, into such situations, made the story even more notable and plausible. The characters were authentic. The analysis of love, obsession, secrets, lies, madness and the tragedies that followed these characters was insightful and spot-on. The story was read by the narrators in perfect pitch for each character. They literally became the characters and it was easy to discern who was speaking at all times. By the way, “Do you know that camels have three eyelids?”