Audiobook Review: Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (January 18, 2022)
Length: 10 hrs and 6 mins
Author Information: Website
Such a Pretty Smile was definitely an odd one. As a horror novel, it was unsettlingly chilling; as a thriller, it kept me on my toes. But there is also another major component to it that is almost ineffable because it doesn’t fit easily into any genre category. It’s a surreal, supernatural quality that lends the story a certain amount of vagueness, even imparting something of an allegorical spin on this tale of mothers and daughters and what it means to break out of your own shell.
Unfolding via two timelines, the novel begins in 2019 with an introduction to thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer who is desperate to fit in at school. Of course, it doesn’t help that her mother is Caroline Sawyer, a local artist and university professor who has made quite a name for herself as the brilliant creator of beautiful but disturbing sculptures crafted from organic material. A single mother, Caroline is also overprotective and places strict rules on her daughter which Lila is aware is done out of love, though that doesn’t stop her from wishing she had more freedom, especially when it comes to hanging out with her friend Macie. Everything about the other girl fascinates her, awakening feelings in Lila that she can’t admit to anyone—not to her mother, and certainly not to her father who lives in another city with his new wife and baby. But perhaps there’s a good reason why Caroline wants to keep such a close eye on Lila. A murderer known as The Cur is on the loose, leaving the mutilated bodies of teen girls in his wake…
In the second timeline, readers are whisked back to 2004 New Orleans where newlywed artists Daniel and Caroline Sawyer are both struggling to launch their careers. Unfortunately, the more talented Caroline has recently seen her path waylaid by the sudden illness of her father, and the time and costs of caring for him meant passing up more ambitious projects to settle on giving private art lessons. Teaching rich people’s kids might not be as glamorous, but it’s a job that pays well and covers her father’s medical bills, which is how Caroline meets Beth, a troubled teen with whom she builds a rapport. But then Caroline starts hearing things. Dogs, barking and growling. No one else seems to hear them, but slowly it starts to consume Caroline, making her wonder if all the stresses of work, caring for her dying father, and dealing an unsupportive and jealous husband have all come crashing down on her, making her lose her mind.
Such a Pretty Smile was a good read, and personally I found it very enjoyable until the very end, when ultimately the payoff didn’t quite live up to the buildup. Along the way though, I generally felt engaged with the plot and its structure, but fans of a more linear style of storytelling might find the duo timelines distracting. I for one thought Lila’s chapters slightly more interesting, possibly because we opened the book with her perspective, and thus I felt more connected to her. There’s just also something so tragic about a coming-of-age tale like hers, living with a helicopter mom who so clearly loves her but doesn’t hear her, and having a dad who is far away and too preoccupied with his new family. Meanwhile, Lila’s situation at school with her so-called friend Macie is even more dreadful, as our protagonist tries so hard to be a good girl even as peer pressure and emotions are pulling her in multiple directions.
So when we reach the point where the switch to Caroline’s perspective happens for the first time, it almost feels like an intrusion. I desperately wanted to return to Lila, whom we had left in a precarious situation. Eventually though, Caroline began to win me over, despite it being more difficult to relate to her character. The key to the nightmare in both timelines, relating to the gruesome murders of the teen girls, can be found in her chapters, and these answers were revealed as events in past gradually unfolded.
However, as horrific as The Cur murders were presented, they mostly played a small role in the background. Potentially, this could be another point of contention for readers, because this aspect of the story remained vague even after everything was over. In the end, all that’s left were plenty of unresolved questions and the shock value—which isn’t exactly a good feeling to have when you have a mystery that calls for closure.
For this reason, I found the conclusion disappointing. Even though I came into Such a Pretty Smile knowing it wouldn’t be a happy read, I still found the ending somewhat rushed and unsatisfying. That said, this was a unique read, and speaking as a fan of horror novels, I do so enjoy picking up something deeper, more cerebral and challenging every once in a while. In this way, the novel reminded me of another supernatural, allegorical coming-of-age horror I read a few years called When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord, so if you enjoy chilling, unusual stories like that, I would recommend checking this out.