Published in 2007, Such A Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss is a suspenseful drama packed into a young adult novel. Triggering themes include child and sexual abuse, gaslighting, PTSD and lack of self-care, neglect, and erasure of abuse; other themes include (consensual) sexual, car accidents related to drunk driving, and religious beliefs of the Christian/Catholic faith. This story may be too dark or complex for preteen readers! I suggest that readers as young as 14-15 can try this out if they’ve had sex education and are mature enough to handle reading about such a heavy topic. There are no explicit descriptions of abuse or consensual sexual situations, but it is heavily implied.
I came across my copy of Laura Wiess’s Such A Pretty Girl at a local secondhand store, its’ faded and wrinkled facade a match to its cover art. I became quickly and deeply invested in the main character’s physical and mental wellbeing.
15-year-old Meredith Shale is a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, Charles, who at the start of the book has been released early from his incarceration for molesting her and several other children. Not only did the justice system do Meredith wrong, but her own mother fails her too: Sharon’s blind love and idolization for Charles incites her to downplay her daughter’s abuse and welcome the abuser back into their family in lieu of Meredith’s safety. She tried silencing Meredith from ever speaking up, and after Charles’ release tries to convince Meredith to act her part of a normal, loving family.
So not only must Meredith evade her father’s attempts back into her life but also grapple her willfully ignorant mother’s refusal to acknowledge the past abuse and her enablement for future abuse.
“She keeps calling it a mistake, like it was nothing more than taking a wrong turn somewhere. She’s acting like everything’s fine and nothing ever happened, like all this time my father’s been off on some business trip instead of locked up in prison” (26).
Sprinkled throughout the book are flashbacks to snippets of her early childhood. These seemingly mundane memories are forever marred by the knowledge of her father’s predatory motives. It’s painful for Meredith to remember; if the crimes he’d later commit against her didn’t happen, these little moments would have otherwise held a sweet and innocent fondness. Other memories include sickening instances of her being groomed as a child and heartwrenching fights between her and her mother.
Luckily, she has friends and neighbors whom she can rely on to an extent: Nigel, the retired cop living in the same condo complex; her maternal grandmother Leah Louisa who is also mayor of the fictionalized Estertown. Andy is Meredith’s boyfriend who, upon graduating college, became paralyzed from the waist down in an alcohol-related car accident. Andy is also one of the kids who was molested—when Meredith was three, Charles had left the family for the widowed Paula Mues and her seven-year-old son. Upon discovering her son’s abuse and after his accident, Ms. Mues turns to the Holy Mother seeking recovery for Andy’s paralysis and revenge for Andy’s abuse. They also live in the condo complex, and their apartment serves as a safe haven for Meredith to shelter in on several occasions.
Years ago when I first read this book, I didn’t find much fault. But after skimming through it recently, I found some things that irk me:
- I took issue with using Andy’s confinement to a wheelchair as a parallel to Meredith’s position of being trapped in her situation and euphemism of Andy’s helplessness. His disability is something that hinders him or holds their relationship back—Meredith notes that she’d want to be with him sexually, even if he is paralyzed. She is frustrated of Andy’s shame which prevents them from taking their intimacy further, lamenting that she has never seen him with his pants off while, disturbingly, her father has seen both of them without their pants.
- Another matter in question is Such A Pretty Girl‘s religious undertones. This specifically ties to the devout Ms. Mues faith in a victim soul healing her son’s legs and the Virgin Mary statue in her apartment that symbolizes many things throughout the novel. ** Spoiler ** Both of these things, the victim soul and the madonna statue, are ultimately Andy’s and Meredith’s salvation. I understand the story’s use of religious iconography since I come from a Catholic background. However, I find it’s problematic seeking religion as a way to heal one’s disability (as opposed to accepting the disability, because no one with a disability is ‘broken’ or lacking anything in comparison to able-bodied folk).
- The dynamic of Meredith and Andry is grating and at times hard to read. It doesn’t come from their 4-year age gap but specifically from the two reasons above. Don’t get me wrong, their relationship is described as loving but tumultuous—it’s actually a very realistic take on real relationships. However, Andy’s disability is a catalyst for Andy and Meredith. She’s upset he’s leaving town (in hopes of healing his legs) not just because her dad’s back; she’s concerned that he’d drop her as soon as he could walk again. Despite Andy obviously deeply caring for Meredith, he doesn’t give the reassurance needed to quell her insecurities. With Meredith’s and Andy’s intertwined history of sexual abuse, we see signs of trauma from both characters that results in some tense moments and a lack of miscommunication. In contrast, their relationship can also be seen as a method of taking back control of their bodies and lives. They ultimately feel safe and loved in their relationship, and want to be together despite their personal grievances.
One look at Meredith and she is very much the “little lost lamb” as Ms. Mues describes her sardonically to Charles, “‘[trudging] along like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders” (66). After being ostracized from association to her father by the community (despite being one of the children he abused), Meredith can often be seen walking around town barefoot, hanging out around dumpsters, throwing away perfectly good food and setting things on fire. All of these things may seem out of hand to an outsider but, to Meredith, these are some things she must do in order to gain a semblance of control over her life.
I liked how Such A Pretty Girl was written from Meredith’s point of view. Her traumatic experiences have her coping in various ways such as hiding behind a facade of apathy, smoking cigarettes, skepticism in trusting others, and a peculiar obsession with numbers and taking her vitamins. Throughout the span of the book, she practices various methods of self-preservation. She can be seen withdrawing from communication, sneaking out of the house, and intentionally lacking hygiene in an attempt to dismay or disinterest her abuser.
In a literary review, New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice compared Meredith to Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird and Phoebe Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye. Meredith carries some notable characteristics with these two timeless heroines, from Phoebe’s intelligence and sharp observation of the people around her to Scout’s independent, stubborn streak and tomboyish appearance. She also exudes the deep vulnerability and awkwardness of any young girl, whose desire to feel understood is something that most readers may resonate with.
In essence, what made this novel so captivating was being with Meredith as she’s experiencing the absolute, worst-case-scenario of her life. Wiess constructs such an intricately detailed world that makes up her environment and the people that surround her. Such A Pretty Girl pulls you in and doesn’t let go until you’ve read every last page of Meredith’s story.
I loved this novel by Laura Wiess the first time I read it, and while I noticed some tedious things during the second time reading, I still very thoroughly love this work and it will always have a place on my bookshelf. Readers who are survivors of abuse might find this story cathartic to read, though I must warn that while there aren’t graphic depictions of abuse, the language used may still be triggering for some. If you don’t mind reading through these things to follow a young abuse survivor’s struggle for freedom, I highly suggest Such A Pretty Girl.
Originally posted on my old blog, The Plant That Never Blooms (on Blogspot)