Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Review: 'Pretty Baby' by Mary Kubica

Heidi Wood and her husband, Chris, an investment banker, live in a condo with their twelve-year-old daughter, Zoe. One day, Heidi, whom Chris has dubbed "a bleeding heart," sees an inadequately dressed and painfully thin adolescent holding an old suitcase and clinging to an infant in Chicago's Fullerton Station. The weather is vile--forty-eight degrees and rainy. What is this teenager doing in a storm with an infant in her arms? Although Heidi proceeds to board a train and go to work at a non-profit (whose mission it is to promote adult literacy among impoverished people, mostly immigrants) she cannot shake the feeling that she made a terrible mistake. She should have offered a helping hand to this obviously desperate single mother.

As fate would have it, Heidi meets the teenager (Willow) and her baby (Ruby) twice more, and Heidi begs the bedraggled youngster to meet her for dinner in a restaurant. Without consulting Chris, Heidi makes a critical decision; she invites Willow into their home, where the exhausted "street urchin" takes a long overdue bath, greedily gobbles down the meals Heidi prepares, and accepts help with Ruby. Although Heidi appears to be a compassionate person with no ulterior motive, her altruistic behavior may have a darker side of which even she is unaware. It turns out that both Willow and Heidi were scarred by events from the past that have left them severely traumatized.

"Pretty Baby" is a mesmerizing and skillfully constructed psychological thriller, narrated by Heidi, Willow, and Chris in alternating chapters. Kubica's themes are grim and disturbing: child abuse, unresolved grief, guilt, obsession, and murder. As Heidi becomes more deeply involved in Willow and Ruby's fate, Chris senses his wife slipping away from him. Should he turn his back on Heidi and respond to the advances of an attractive colleague? Would he be justified in leaving Heidi to clean up the mess she has made? Meanwhile, their daughter, Zoe, remains belligerent and rebellious, giving Heidi little reason to feel proud of her mothering skills. As Heidi and Willow's secrets emerge in flashback, we learn how and why their lives have unraveled. This is not a feel-good novel. On the contrary, "Pretty Baby" is uncompromising, intense, and tragic. It is also a powerful indictment of a broken foster care system that neglects the very children it is supposed to protect.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right