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July 14, 2015

Book Notes - Maggie Mitchell "Pretty Is"

Pretty Is

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Maggie Mitchell's debut novel Pretty Is is an impressive literary thriller that explores the bonds of female friendship formed under the darkest of circumstances.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Mitchell's debut novel is both a skewering of America's JonBenet Ramsey-style fixation with little girls in peril and a fascinating glimpse at the intensity of female friendship. . . . Told in flashbacks from alternating points of view, the work is most interesting when Mitchell explores the girls' desires and neuroses. . . . Psychologically rich, with haunting detail, Mitchell's work is a disturbing, insightful look at our deep fears."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Maggie Mitchell's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Pretty Is:


My novel is about an abduction: two pretty twelve-year-old girls, a spelling bee champion and a beauty queen, are swept off the streets of their towns and held for six weeks in an Adirondack hunting lodge by a charming cipher of a man. But it's also a novel about longing and loss, loneliness, desire. The songs I have chosen are sad and beautiful; they capture my mood as I was writing and the sadness and dark longings that haunt my characters. I see these as haunting songs, ultimately, and I think of this list as a soundtrack to Pretty Is.


"Pretty Girls," Neko Case
This could really be the novel's theme song. It's at once languid and fierce, and it picks up on the tangled relationship I explore in the novel between prettiness and what it means to be "good" and how we come to understand who we are and what we're worth. The "pretty girls" of the song are both powerful and vulnerable, guilty and innocent—fraught with contradictions.

"The Devil's Feet," Azure Ray
At once lovely and sinister, this song features a mysterious male figure who is both seductive and dangerous, as well as a return to a dark moment in the past, a moment that might contain some elusive (and perhaps unwelcome) truth. The eerie harmonies spun by two female voices also echo the structure of the novel, which is built on the alternating voices of Lois and Chloe.

"Drift," Mica Levi
This terrifying composition comes from the soundtrack to Jonathan Grazer's strange and brilliant film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. After I saw the movie, the music haunted me for weeks until I finally bought the CD so I could listen to it whenever I wanted—which was mostly while working on revisions to the novel. As a result, the novel—for me—is saturated with this supremely eerie music. I love the tension between the relentless, echoey beat and the frenetic, skittering surface strings. It's dark and disturbing but also very beautiful. It would make a great backdrop for Lois and Sean's confrontation on the bridge.

"So Much Wine," The Handsome Family
I imagine this song playing the morning Chloe wakes up from her drunken night on the town. It's a sad, sad song about drinking and despair. And love, I think: for me, the novel has a lot to do with love. Strange love, but love all the same.

"Pretty in Pink," Psychedelic Furs
In part, I'm including this simply because I wanted another song with an explicit reference to prettiness. But it's also a devastatingly poignant song about desire and cruelty and judgment and memory, and it feels relevant.

"Heaven," The Talking Heads
I think this is one of the most sad and beautiful songs in the world, and for me it matches the mood of parts of the book; it also captures the sense of longing and the loss of some impossible idyll that haunts both characters' lives. The idea that "heaven is a place where nothing ever happens" evokes the time that Lois and Chloe and their kidnapper, Zed, spend together in the Adirondacks; it makes me think of their strangely magical nights outside, playing in the dark.

"Rhiannon," Fleetwood Mac
Chloe sings along to a Stevie Nicks song when she's driving up the California coast. I'm taking a minor liberty and making it Fleetwood Mac. I think this song is suggestive of what's enigmatic and elusive and hard to love about both Lois and Chloe. Like Rhiannon, sometimes they're the darkness….I love to picture Chloe belting this out in a rare moment of carefree happiness, her hair blowing in the wind, the cliffs falling away to the Pacific on her left.

"Metal Heart," Cat Power
Another sad and painfully lovely song. The lyrics are cryptic, but suggestive of uncertainty and loneliness and being unmoored from meaning. It echoes the emotional isolation of both main characters: you could say they've both developed metal hearts, cool and heavily guarded.

"Ghost Town," First Aid Kit
Oh, I love these brilliant young Swedish singers, wise beyond their years. And this song's refrain could be a tagline for the novel: "If you've got visions of the past/ Let them follow you down/ They'll come back to you one day. " This book is all about the way the past follows you down—and the idea of the ghost town works as a metaphor for a present emptied out and haunted by the past. There's a sense of an inevitable return, too, that's important to the structure of the novel.

"Prince Johnny," St. Vincent
Like much of Annie Clark's work, this song's ethereal quality is unsettled by an underlying grittiness, which strikes me as appropriate to some of the novel's contrasts. The enigmatic lyrics, too, pick up on some of the novel's concerns: "you're kind but you're not simple" neatly describes Zed, and the repeated exhortation to "make me a real girl" taps into questions about the extent to which our identity is conferred upon us—and the perversity of actually desiring that intervention or affirmation.

"By the Time it Gets Dark," Yo La Tengo
Well, I danced to this song at my wedding, so for me it is already laced with sentiment and significance. But it also works in the context of the novel in two distinct ways: the title suggests the way Lois and Carly May, during the weeks they are held captive, long for darkness, when it is safe to go outside and Zed is softer, more permissive, even dreamy. In the song itself, though, the coming darkness implies hope and change and leaving the past behind. In that sense it's a perfect song to close with, signaling a change of mood and a glimmer of optimism.


Maggie Mitchell and Pretty Is links:

excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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