Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester is a chaotic horror. Lila and her mother know there’s something wrong with The Cur’s killings, but they can’t pinpoint what.
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.
“Men were not frightened by women. Women were not to be fearsome.”
When I hear a book referred to as feminist horror, there is always some concern that it will try to shove the message in my face. However, this book creeps up on you in a way that is jarring. Lila’s anger starts to feel all-encompassing, something familiar and sharp. Caroline’s trauma responses to the world around her feel equally familiar. The two sides of this coin are clear, the youthful anger of teen girls and the traumatized reactions to the things this can cause.
“Girls who disturbed the natural order were supposed to say sorry. But she liked feeling this way.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this story. It was a slow start, the sticky tangible teen angst from Lila was overwhelming- but I didn’t know where the plot was going. And then our author introduces Caroline’s 2004 part of the story, and things start to click. With these things, there’s always the concern that it’s going to be just any other horror that has crazy women in it, instead of being paranormal. However, this wasn’t the case here, and we got a truly chaotic and frightening story.
“Mothers, mind your daughters. Keep them sweet and polite and mannered, and it will keep the teeth from the door.”
This book makes you question, should women live life in fear of consequences for not being polite, and kind? It reminded me of the song “Fire Drills” by Dessa. The idea is that we are worth more than vigilance. The horror was haunting, the monsters something that kept me up at night. The message was clear, but if an in-your-face ideology is not your thing, there’s enough horror and blood here to keep you reading.
“These were the rules Lila had grown up understanding, and there was delight in breaking them.”
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.