Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (2015)

From the very first chapters of this book my heart was racing. The story takes off at a breakneck pace and never once slows down. In the novel, we meet the members of the Carroll family who have spent the last twenty-four years coping with — or more often, not coping with — the disappearance of their daughter and sister, Julia, from a college bar in 1991.

It is clear from the book’s opening pages that readers will not be spared the raw, gritty pain the remaining members of the Carroll family feel as the try to construct as normal a life as possible while not knowing what became of Julia. Slaughter character’s all have an underlying harshness, a remnant of their years of grief and the havoc it wreaked in their lives. While never quite unlikable, they do have an edge that makes them a bit uncomfortable delve into. In the end, however, we want to see what lies beneath their armor and we want to hear the stories they have to tell us.

The book includes intermittent chapters are narrated by the family’s father, Sam Carroll, where he directly addresses his missing daughter. He speaks to Julia, recounting for her what has happened to the family in her absence. He narrates that days, months, and then years that stretched out after her disappearance. He tells of their sorrow and of the subsequent neglect of one another left them all alone. He also tells Julia that he never ceased searching for or investigating her disappearance, reviewing the clues he has gathered in the intervening decades.

The heart of the story, however, focuses on the two sisters left in the family, Lydia and Claire. Estranged for more than two decades, the sisters come together after the shocking death of Claire’s beloved husband, Paul. Almost by accident, Claire learns that her husband has kept many, many secrets from her. Secrets she could never have imagined him to have, as they are so at odds with what she the man she knew to be her husband. Working alone at first, Claire unravels one thread and then another until her entire 20-year marriage begins to come apart at the seams. Desperate for answers, she turns to her sister Lydia for help solving a series of terrifying mysteries that she has unearthed since Paul’s sudden death. The secrets that Paul has kept from Claire grow darker and more horrific with each passing revelation and the sisters become terrified looking for answers might mean that their lives are in danger.

This terrifying, gripping tale is told in a wild, fast-paced chapters. The author never lets us rest, just as we begin to digest one bombshell, another is revealed, on and on until we cannot begin to imagine what is real or who the sister’s can trust. With only one another to rely on, they must work to make sense of what has happened and try to prevent any more people from being hurt, all the while working through their own damaged relationship and their still raw grief over Julia’s disappearance. The story was so scary, so unbelievably dark and horrendous I could hardly catch my breath, but nothing would stop me from reading one chapter after the next until well into the middle of the night. It left me absolutely breathless!

The story of a wife who discovers her husband’s dark secrets upon his death has been told before. Three titles that I have read in the past year come to mind here: You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Liar by Nora Roberts, and the short story “A Good Marriage” by Stephen King most recently published in Full Dark, No Stars. The fact that this story is based on a troupe that does not make Slaughter’s tale any less engaging or fresh. It seems that the story is compelling each time it is told because it taps into a deep-rooted fear we hold. It is a terrifying for us to imagine finding out that a person we loved and trusted without question — our partner or child or parent — was really someone we knew nothing about at all. We are all compelled to ask ourselves what we would do if we found out that a stranger has shared our bed for twenty years? Worse yet, what if that stranger is revealed to be monster?

NOTE: This book contains many descriptions of sexual violence, some against young girls. Do not read this book if you are sensitive to those topics.


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