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Pretty Things

Review

Pretty Things

Following the release of her highly acclaimed thriller, WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, Janelle Brown returns with PRETTY THINGS, a sophisticated and expertly rendered mystery about the selves we curate for social media, and the people we are at home, stripped from all the glamour and glitz of the public.

Gorgeous, lithe and sharp, Nina Ross knows how to get what she wants. Drawing all the attention on the dance floors of elite clubs, she knows her power --- but that’s not all. She also knows the weaknesses of the rich and famous…and, lucky for her, she can track them all on Instagram, watching carefully as those with nothing to worry about carelessly geotag, hashtag, and show off their exorbitant wealth and privilege on social media. Nina has made a career of showing up at the right places, knowing the right clubs and using her otherwise useless art history degree to relieve young, rich showoffs of their Louis XIV and Rococo furniture, their priceless emeralds and forgotten wads of cash. But for the first time, Nina knows her next mark, and her most personal hit yet may be her last.

"It is rare for an author to present hero and victim so equally, but here Brown reminds us that we are all complicated, layered and flawed, and the pace at which she reveals her characters’ motives is breakneck and endlessly compelling."

Vanessa Liebling is wealthy, privileged and broken. Borne of mediocre talent and average intelligence, she has catapulted her family’s wealth into an extravagant career as a social media influencer. But life has changed for Vanessa recently: her father has died, leaving her the sole caretaker of not only the their Lake Tahoe estate, Stonehaven, but her younger brother, Benny, a drug-addled and mentally ill black sheep for the Liebling family. Feeling unmoored and alienated, Vanessa retreats to Stonehaven and turns the caretaker’s cottage into an Airbnb-like rental --- inviting in all sorts of people, including Nina and her pseudo-boyfriend, Lachlan.

Alternating perspectives between Nina and Vanessa, Brown introduces two young women who are equally ambitious, damaged and, shall we say, morally gray. While Nina has the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of persona that readers will love in an underdog, Vanessa is also no stranger to loss and victimhood. As they collide and toy with one another on the vast Stonehaven estate, the author introduces twist after twist, forcing readers to wonder what’s real and what isn’t as two women adept at conforming to whatever their audiences want finally reveal their true selves.

When I read WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, I was struck by Brown’s gorgeous prose, but found myself wondering what might happen if she pushed herself just a little further and tightened up her characters a bit more. I am thrilled to report that she does just that in PRETTY THINGS, combining razor-sharp character arcs with poignant, thought-provoking questions to give readers one of the most unputdownable novels I have read in several months. She unites themes of poverty, privilege, mental illness and the influence of social media in tight, clever ways that elevate the mystery at the heart of her book, rather than weighing it down.

It would be easy for a lesser author to villainize Nina for her criminal activity, or Vanessa for her privilege, but Brown excels at immersing readers in both women’s heads, allowing us to relate to them equally to the point that every situation, tense encounter and furthering of the plot becomes elevated by moral grayness, ambiguous motives and brilliant combinations of privilege and power. This is a smart novel, clearly influenced by the social media age, but it is also an emotionally resonant one that will leave you thinking not only about what you choose to post online, but why you have chosen to post it. The author leaves no stone unturned in her inquisitive prodding of social media identities, and draws many important questions about perspective.

While that alone might be enough to call this book a must-read, it is Nina and Vanessa who make it unforgettable. It is rare for an author to present hero and victim so equally, but here Brown reminds us that we are all complicated, layered and flawed, and the pace at which she reveals her characters’ motives is breakneck and endlessly compelling. Having read both WATCH ME DISAPPEAR and PRETTY THINGS, I am absolutely on the edge of my seat anticipating her next book. She gets better and better every time, and it is thrilling to be able to watch her talent grow.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 15, 2020

Pretty Things
by Janelle Brown

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0525479120
  • ISBN-13: 9780525479123