[Book Review] Kristi DeMeester’s SUCH A PRETTY SMILE
I’ll show you my teeth.
Many things would probably end quicker if we believed women (and victims, generally). The entire horror genre might collapse in on itself into little more than 10-minute vignettes, but justice would out and predators of all kinds would probably be squashed before they were able to hunt. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. We each have one inside of us. The question is whether or not we feed it. Told from the alternating perspectives of mother and daughter, across multiple years, Kristi DeMeester’s Such A Pretty Smile toys with the idea of how feeding the beasts of impulsively strong emotions can go from tantalizingly freeing to borderline uncontrollable with impressive results. What does feeding the monster look like in women? In girls? Men?
There are many ways to approach the subject of monstrosity and the fear that comes along with it. Such A Pretty Smile does so in part through the lens of realistic depictions of schizophrenia and dissociation. While I cannot speak to having lived with the experience, it is necessary to recognize the importance of a work setting out to show it in a way that does not villainize the person living with mental illness. Rather, the most dangerous villain at play here is the all-important cocktail at the heart of nearly every work of horror: disbelief and denial. Denial of self, occasionally, but most usually denial of the ones around us. Disbelief, usually, until it is all but too late.
Such A Pretty Smile weaponizes female rage in ways I have not seen in quite some time. It digs into the rage at the heart of competitive and consuming teenage girl friendships — notoriously intense relationships spun with the threads of love and longing with varying degrees of intensity — and of fractured family dynamics. Lila is a 13-year-old coming to terms with (and still hiding) her sexuality. Caroline, her mother, has secrets buried so deep down she won’t even think about how they might be blooming in her present. When Lila’s rage begins to manifest itself as a voice within her, egging her on to voice her deepest feelings, Caroline must come to terms with the fact that keeping secrets buried can sometimes cost us the ones we love and decide what she is willing to sacrifice in the name of constructing a “normal” life for her family in a world being hunted by a man who exploits the town’s deepest fears.
We all aspire to be braver than we are. Brave in the face of our darkest moments. In the face of the things we force ourselves to look away from so that we might continue our lives without completely melting down. More often than not, actually cultivating that bravery requires us to reach out to others for support. Whether those who grab for us in return have good intentions is another matter altogether. When Lila begins to give into the voice inside her begging her to let the poison thoughts out, she at first feels free. There is, after all, an enticing freedom to damning the consequences and speaking your mind, especially as a woman who spends most of her time in the world being told how to act in order to survive. Women are told that speaking their mind, releasing their anger, is a threat to their safety rather than a tool to ensure it. That’s what makes strong femmes in horror so alluring: they get to release their rage and live to tell the tale.
Lila’s newfound anger and subsequent pressure-release-valve come hot on the heels of witnessing a trauma while sneaking out with her friend to meet some boys in the woods. But nothing is quite what it seems, and soon she begins to ride the roller coaster her mother boarded so many years ago: giving in to the thing that stings often enough that suddenly reality and fantasy intertwine into a terrifyingly indistinguishable nightmare. In order to regain control of her world Lila must confront the demons nipping at her heels, and bring Caroline to do the same.
The men at the heart of Such A Pretty Smile are mostly on the harmless-to-irreparably-toxic spectrum to varying degrees. The teenage boy who hangs back with Lila while her friend is being assaulted in the woods is harmless to a fault, though he must have known what was happening. Caroline’s husband is so wrapped up in his own desires he frequently tosses her anxieties to the side so he can use her artistic draught to climb his own career ladder. The Cur, the enduring beast who has reappeared in town to hunt girls who use their voices to deconstruct the boxes society would force them into, is ripping his way through girls like Lila and Caroline with gleeful abandon, hoping to lure back the one that got away. Amid it all the women of Such A Pretty Smile must find the things about one another to hold onto so they might survive a world that wants to smile only with their blood on its teeth.
Such A Pretty Smile is a defiant, heart-wrenching testament to the strength of victims fighting battles those outside their sphere have no way of comprehending. No one but the fighter truly knows the depth of determination it takes to look a society who wishes to silence you in the eye and give it every ounce of rage you have within. We are all, at least a little bit, made with spite running through us. What matters is how we use it. What matters is who we protect with it. What we use it to survive. And how we turn it in the service of love for the ones we need the most.
Such A Pretty Smile comes to booksellers near you January 2022. I would like to thank the publisher and NetGalley for the chance to receive an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review, and Kristi DeMeester for flaying the demons no one wishes to face.