A Southern Beach Read for Brave Women
Mystery novels, one of them most intense fiction genres, also provide one of the most satisfying—particularly when the reader finishes the book and puts it down. Southern literature brings a few of the most highly acclaimed female authors to the mystery/suspense table. From Kentucky’s Sue Grafton to Florida’s Patricia Cornwell, female mystery writers dominate Southern culture’s bookshelves. However, few tackle tough subjects such as rape, woman-targeted violence, and the deadly caricature of women as perpetual victims as Karin Slaughter does in her novel Pretty Girls. The Atlanta-born author wrangles her audience in from page one with questions in desperate need of answers, while detailing how those ominous answers can affect not only the victim in question but the entire community surrounding her. The desperation cultivated in the plot not only places the characters in a stranglehold but also some of the South’s archaic ideals for women. Slaughter deconstructs the idea that a delicate Southern belle remains just out of reach of victimization and that all women can fall prey to it.
Pretty Girls follows the tale of two estranged sisters linked by a violent past filled with shameful secrets. Lydia, the owner of a dog grooming business and mother of one daughter, carries the weight of a dark past that includes drug use, jail time, and a would-be rape that estranges her from her family for long periods. Due to her past habits of lying and stealing to fuel her drug binges, her sister Claire and their mother resort to skepticism regarding Lydia’s plight. Claire, the photo negative of Lydia, leads a privileged life with husband Paul—a successful architect—and remains close to her family, living lavishly due to Paul’s generous salary. However, both women find out that they are connected in ways beyond family ties, despite their distinct differences.
The complex threads of a previously happy family started unraveling when their sister Julia, the middle child of the three, mysteriously disappeared one night after socializing at a bar in Athens, Georgia. After surviving years of heartache due to Julia’s mysterious disappearance, the suicide of their always grieving father, and Lydia’s rape accusations against Paul, the two sisters finally end up reuniting after Paul dies from a back-alley stabbing in a less than heartwarming fashion. Claire catches Lydia peeing on Paul’s freshly covered grave only days after his funeral. What is supposed to be a brief encounter transforms into a painful retracing of steps into their dark past when Claire discovers a case of files in Paul’s office containing a folder with full details of Lydia’s carefully rebuilt life after the rape accusation, amongst other folders centered on other women’s private lives.
The mixture of denial, repulsion, and dark curiosity compels Claire to involve her sister in piecing together a deadly and horrific jigsaw puzzle, each piece involving the abduction, rape, torture, and murder of dozens of women—all of whom are documented on film by the perpetrator who bears a threatening familiarity to the two heroines. Though the subject matter will disturb and instill uneasiness in the reader, it also takes the characters down the path of redemption, forgiveness, healing, and empowerment. The compelling novel constitutes all the ingredients for a recipe of perfection in the genre of crime novels, with page-turning anticipation all set in the Atlanta area.
The reasons behind this book’s potency include the themes that Slaughter carves out in perfect detail. When Lydia and Claire are hunted by local law enforcement upon their discoveries, the reader encounters the painful reality that women all too often are brushed to the side when faced with victimization—sometimes at the hands of law enforcement themselves. Claire’s hesitance to believe Lydia’s story of rape survival symbolizes that women, particularly in the South, can and will receive judgment from their closest loved ones because of their pasts. Such analysis functions to generate an exit with which they can close the doors on something too painful to process. Further, Slaughter carefully demonstrates that abusive relationships may not always include constant bruises, bleeding wounds, or any other physicality associated with a controlling relationship. Sometimes, such relationships rely solely on isolation, carefully constructed power play, and vital information tucked away from the partner to keep her in the dark. The most frightening lesson that hits closest to home is this: you may have seen the devil. And you may well know him intimately.
Perhaps the most important theme showcases the incredible resilience of the human spirit—no matter how turbulent the circumstances appear. Pretty Girls creates a cultural dialogue that women, regardless of background and reputation, must always band together to conquer violence. Slaughter’s novel calls women to embrace and empower each other’s differences, recognize each other’s tragedies, and validate each other’s survivals to take on whatever forces would work against them, be they political, governmental, or familial.
Few novels go into such carefully plotted detail about the particular horrors women face when simply walking down the street at night. It is estimated that one in every six women will survive either attempted or completed rape within her lifespan, with nearly fifteen percent of women falling victim to a completed rape. Women of college age have their chances of encountering such barbarism increased threefold. Slaughter’s Pretty Girls unapologetically forces its readers to face the reality that this could include themselves, a friend, a family member or a complete stranger, challenging the audience to look beyond the imperfections of a victim crying for help and offer a listening and receptive ear at the very least.