St. Martin’s Press | 2022
Filed Under: Men as demon dogs
I don’t think this necessarily accomplished what it was trying to accomplish, but as a feminist witch, I appreciate the effort.
It just needed more cowbell.
…or maybe less cowbell.
It needed more cowbell and less cowbell, simultaneously.
For one, the horror in this was way too understated, and at times, put on the back burner. And the soapbox aspects read like the author wanted to beat me over the head with how shit men can be. And like, I totally get it and I agree.
But the themes of women being judged, belittled, condescended to and dismissed by men tended to drown out the actual narrative for me, which was supposed to be about a spooky evil killer known only as the Cur who was ripping obstinate young woman into meat threads.
The author clearly has strong opinions that they wanted to turn into social subtext to add meaningful depth to the plot, but it could sometimes be less subtext and more screaming street preacher, you know what I mean?
Like, balance is all I’m looking for, so give me more horror and murder alongside the man-hating.
Revolving around child murders 15 years apart committed by the Cur, the plot flips between 2019 and 2004. In 2004, Caroline is grappling with her dying father, mounting medical bills, her selfish shitty fiancé, an unplanned pregnancy, a stalled art career and mental health issues that she can’t seem to treat in any successful way. Visual and auditory hallucinations of evil dogs and men with fangs plague her. She’s convinced they are real, that they mean something and are somehow tied to the recent murders, but when she tries to get help, all the men – including her therapist – just pat her on the head with a “silly little girl, calm down and take your happy pills” vibe.
In 2019, Caroline’s tween daughter Lila is dealing with the awkwardness of growing up and having confusing feelings about her best friend, but it’s all overshadowed by hallucinations and an unstoppable compulsion to stand up for herself in a way that is fucking terrifying and gets her into some serious trouble.
And I’ll be honest, Lila going the fuck off were my favourite parts of this.
Like, yes Queen, tell that mean girl you’ll slit her open and play with her intestines again!
Between Caroline and Lila, secrets are revealed – but in a really confusing way and I’m not totally sure all the pieces fit – and the mother and daughter duo find their past and present connected (I’m using that word liberally) to the Cur and a theme park called Jazzland.
Then shit gets real, but also real weird. And either I just didn’t get it or the author left some clarification on the editing room floor.
Like, what the actual fuck was the Cur? A demon? A man with supernatural vibes? A big evil dog getting his Cujo on without motive? Some kind of shapeshifter? A manifestation of men’s hatred towards women? A manifestation of men’s desired oppression of women? And where did it come from? Why is it existing in a theme park?
The whole idea of the Cur wasn’t developed enough for me – it was vaguely presented and had no established backstory or reason. It provided no why, no real answers and that diminished the menacing, haunting atmosphere around it.
I love an enthusiastic “fuck you!” to the patriarchy, but in terms of a horror novel, there’s a lot to be desired here. If this had leaned more into being a supernatural horror story full of evil things lurking in the dark, killing young girls, that would have been right up my alley. If it had focused on the angry feminist angle – exploring all the ways men sideline, oppress and denigrate women and what kind of revenge we could enact for that, it would have been even further up my alley. If it had been about a mother-daughter relationship fraught with growing pains and exploring a shared mental illness… okay, it wouldn’t have gone down my alley and I wouldn’t have read it and we wouldn’t be here right now.
But this novel tries to be everything and in the frenzy to make it all mesh, none of it really does and I was left underwhelmed and a bit confused.
And that ending? Woof. So desperately unsatisfying.
This almost had it, but ultimately missed the mark with me.
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.