Pretty Baby is a dark, suspenseful drama featuring a do-gooder, her career-obsessed spouse and a runaway teen with a baby. Kubica keeps the reader guessing not only about her characters’ motives, but also about the crime that seems to have been committed, and whether or not any of our three narrators are telling the whole truth.
The novel starts from Heidi’s point of view. It’s a rainy, dreary early spring day in Chicago and Heidi is on her way to work where she runs a center dedicated to helping immigrants, the jobless, the illiterate, and homeless. At the L station, she sees the girl with the baby, dressed inappropriately and drenched, and it tugs at her heart and her conscience. After seeing them several times, and even following them in the library, she resolves to get involved, to help this girl Willow and her infant Ruby first by feeding them dinner and then by bringing them to her home. Heidi’s 12-year-old daughter Zoe, already sullen, resentful and secretive, is appalled and even more resentful at Willow and Ruby’s intrusion into their lives. Husband Chris, a successful investment advisor, is dead-set against this stranger and her child living with them; she could be a murderer, and if she is under 18 and a runaway, it could mean trouble for Heidi and Chris. But Heidi is adamant; Willow and the baby consume her attention while Zoe is neglected and Chris’ work takes him frequently away.
When Kubica switches to Willow’s point of view, and she switches amongst her three narrators from chapter to chapter, the main events of the novel are already in the past and Willow is in a juvenile detention center being interviewed by the DA’s office. We know some sort of crime has occurred and that Heidi is also in custody. Slowly, throughout the novel, we learn Willow’s troubled history: orphaned with her little sister at age 9, separated from her sister and taken to a foster home where she was abused and essentially held captive, and her escape many years later. From Chris, we learn the initial joys of his relationship with Heidi, his obsession with making money, and the temptations of co-worker Cassidy. Chris loves his wife, but he feels that she is behaving unreasonably and even dangerously with Willow and Ruby, and so he decides to go behind her back to try to find out who Willow really is.
Kubica slowly unravels her story and her characters’ psyches, revealing the impact of grief and loss in their lives. Yet with each character I found myself wavering back and forth between concern and distrust. Several times in the story, characters say, “How much can you really know another person?” This applies to each character in the novel, not just our big three: Zoe, neighbor Graham, the foster family that took Willow, the adoptive family that took her sister Lily, the case worker who followed Willow, the assistant DA. How much does anyone know and how much of their ignorance is based on a failure to just look and ask basic questions? Kubica uses a metaphor of the sea anemone to bring this home:
[Sea anemones] looked like flowers but they were not. Instead, they were predators of the sea. Immortal. Injecting paralyzing venom into their prey so they could eat them alive.
Looks can indeed be deceiving, and assuming that all is well because people look well from the outside could be a deadly mistake.
Pretty Baby is a thrilling story, just right for reading fireside on a chilly fall evening. It’s a good choice for those who like to be kept off balance and enjoy an unreliable narrator or two (or three).