Book: “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them.
There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.
2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it.
2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waves her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.
As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
I’m sure that this following statement is probably relatable for a lot of people: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I’ve been dismissed because of the fact that I’m a woman. While I absolutely know that I have a lot of privilege that others don’t, there are still times that I’ve felt like I’ve been talked down to, condescended to, or flat out sneered at because of underlying currents of misogyny in our culture. Throw in the fact that I have diagnosed mental illnesses, and I find myself not only feeling bad about these moments of being belittled, but then I start to question my own perceptions because of my anxiety. Enter “Such A Pretty Smile” by Kristi DeMeester, a new horror novel that uses these themes as the foundation of a genuinely disturbing and trippy tale of terror involving missing and murdered girls, mothers and daughters, and the way that all these women are victimized by society and many of the men around them.
“Such A Pretty Smile” as a title tells you a lot about what you are going to read. Lord knows that in “Little Red Riding Hood” a canine foe has his mouth and smile commented upon, but there is also the ‘you’d be prettier if you smiled’ bullshit that women hear (let me tell you, working in a public library at the desk made this a common occurrence). Our story is told in two perspectives over two timelines. The first is that of thirteen year old Lila, a girl in 2019 who is dealing with a lot of the awkward coming of age issues: she has a crush on her beautiful (but manipulative) best friend Macie, her father has moved on to a new family and has little time for her, and her mother Caroline is a good mother but has secrets of her own. When girls her age start disappearing and turning up dead, with a mysterious killer named “The Cur” being theorized as the culprit, Caroline starts to get more paranoid, and Lila starts to feel something strange and almost feral awakening inside of her. The other two perspectives are Caroline’s the modern day one trying to keep Lila safe from harm as things escalate, as well as one in Caroline’s past, which centered around her terminally ill father, her jealous of her talent boyfriend (Lila’s father), and seeming hallucinations involving barking dogs. Oh, and also a string of teenage girls disappearing and turning up murdered in the same way that the girls in the present are. The way that Demeester pulls all of these stories together takes time, but it’s done in a way that feels very deliberate, even if it sometimes leaves it up to the reader to parse out their own thoughts and feelings. The slow build dread of Caroline’s past trauma mirroring with Lila’s present situation is tense and well executed, and it all builds to a strange and haunting climax that is genuinely disturbing. Sometimes the jumping around is a little hard to follow, and I definitely found the Caroline POVs more interesting than Lila’s, but in the end it all blends to create a well done whole.
But its greatest strength is the solid ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy that “Such A Pretty Smile” spits out as much as it can. From ‘bad girls’ being victimized but not as valued in society’s eyes, to Caroline dealing with a condescending therapist, to Caroline ALSO dealing with a petty and jealous boyfriend who gaslights her out of envy, this book has so many moments that had me seething in rage. Demeester translates these reality based horrors into something supernatural and strange, and it really worked well for me. We have people like the murder victims being brutalized and objectified before and after death, but we also have the smaller but hurtful moments of one girl being reprimanded for lashing out at a boy who groped her in the lunch line, or another girl being groomed by an older boy in hopes of being accepted, or Caroline herself being told that her genuine and real fears are hysteria by people she is supposed to trust. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying, and Demeester taps into all of it and finds horror fuel at the root.
“Such A Pretty Smile” is upsetting and compelling, and I will definitely be checking out what Demeester has to offer in the future.
Rating 8: All too relevant and relatable as well as creepy and haunting, “Such A Pretty Smile” was a disturbing read that will be familiar to a lot of women who have been silenced by misogyny.