What if you spent all of high school as an also-ran hiding in the shadows? What happens if you felt perpetually overshadowed, overlooked?
Little Pretty Things will take you back to those feelings of inferiority. That is, unless you were class valedictorian and the star athlete.
I doubt you’ll find a better example of strong point-of-view in a protagonist. Lori Rader-Day rolls out a richly three-dimensional character in Juliet Townsend—and gives us full access to all the slights she has felt, all the bitter humiliations and stinging frustrations. Juliet retains vivid memories of her high school experience. She recalls the pain. It’s palpable. Of course, she hasn’t gone far, just down the road to clean rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, “a step above a roadside dive.” We’re outside Indianapolis. It could be anywhere, U.S.A.
Juliet (Jules, the perfect nickname) is no angel. She knows the motel looks clean, but knows how to fake it. Short-cuts, sure. And little things, little pretty things, might disappear if you are staying in one of the rooms she cleans. She is a collector, let’s say. Juliet feels she’s owed. “This thing—shiny, silver, gold, pink, beaded, flowered, whatever it was. Some little pretty thing that was someone else’s. With the flick of a wrist, it became mine.”
And then, one night, Madeline Bell shows up. Madeline Bell “had always meant the same thing to me. Another loss. Another very near miss.” And Juliet, who spots a certain shiny thing on Maddy’s finger, can only think she’ll be the one who might get to clean Madeline’s “fair locks” from the shower drain the next morning.
But Madeline Bell, it turns out, has come to see Juliet. Could that be true? Why would she? They were rivals on the same track team—but “Maddy” always won.
The two share a delicate drink and dicey chat in the Mid-Night’s bar. There’s a reunion coming up, the tenth year. What does Maddy want? Why is she stirring up Juliet’s pain? “For a moment,” Juliet thinks, “my life split in two and I was the me I could have been and also the me I’d become.”
And the next morning, Maddy is found hanging by her neck from the balcony railing at the Mid-Night.
And we’re off.
But Rader-Day doesn’t set this up as a typical amateur detective story. This is much more novel, to me, than mystery—even though there are secrets to uncover, pasts to dig up. Juliet becomes a suspect. We know that’s coming. But Juliet doesn’t whip out the magnifying glass or start button-holing suspects. Her work on the “case” comes more from situational conversations and the overall squeeze of the moment. Juliet’s predilections are exposed. She burrows back into the high school hallways, the gym locker rooms, and the pages of the yearbooks. She is looking for meaning in moments and the power of winning during those formative years. Along the way, she ruminates on the versions of herself that she might have become without Maddy eclipsing her high school experience.
Just what is a trophy? What does it mean? Did Juliet know everything Maddy was going through? Back then? Maddy made it look so easy—was there more to it?
Little Pretty Things has already won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award at this spring’s Edgar Awards ceremony and it’s nominated for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.
No surprise on either count. Little Pretty Things (such a great title) is taut and slow-grind tense from start to finish. And as a case for rethinking high school reform—putting less emphasis on letter jackets and class rankings—it’s a must read.