Pretty Little Dirty
by Amanda Boyden
Published by Vintage Books
345 pages, 2006
Do You Know Where Your Daughter Is?
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Are you tough enough to read this book?
In this, her first novel, Boyden delves deeply into the lives of two adolescent girls who do not weather the transition into adulthood well. Initially funny and spot-on, the book starts out sunnily describing the beginnings of a firm friendship between two eleven year olds, a close relationship that survives eight years.
Readers may well chuckle at the screaming girls terrorized at camp by spider webs festooning their sleeping quarters, and will not be able to resist the dark humor of the mooning episode in the school bus. Early on, however, we get the feeling that this literary ride is not heading to suburbia. There's an ominous foreshadowing beginning on only the second page, warning us not to get too complaisant. Lines like: "Celeste's own opinion of her physical appearance is what saved her and what doomed her", are laced throughout Pretty Little Dirty, preparing us for the journey. If we get caught out, it's not Boyden's fault.
Also eerily prefacing every chapter are short episodes written in the second person. Although they exactly mirror the later lives of the two characters, the second person voice results in a far greater effect. Who is this narrator? Who is this person being spoken to? Do you know where your daughter is? This is scary, graphic stuff and it gets worse. Because these prefaces are laced throughout the story, it's another reason why we cannot say we weren't warned.
Boyden also challenges our complacency by introducing us to two young girls who are born for success. Celeste and Lisa -- check out those names -- should have skipped their way into successful, fulfilling lives. These are not two underprivileged, abused children with no hope for the future, the kind of youth we may shrug and say of, "What can you expect?" These pretty angels are exceptionally gifted children, whose parents have moved to Kansas City in order to place them in the best private school the city has to offer. Their families are well off and while Lisa's upbringing is less than wonderful, she is effectively adopted by Celeste's loving and vibrant Italian family, where she spends much of her youth. Add beauty to the brains, popularity and personalities of the healthy pair, and you have two girls destined for greatness. How can they not be successful at whatever they choose to do?
What they chose to do, however, is to drop out of university, to break their parents' hearts, and to become groupies traveling with whatever grunge band will have them -- reveling in drugs, raunchy punch-outs at raves and sex with anyone -- the greasier the better. Sex is just another name for nothing left to lose.
You almost don't want to read the final parts of the book on an empty stomach as these two beautiful, intelligent and witty young women happily slide to the crusted, malodorous bottom. It's stomach twisting; edgy doesn't half describe it. Try this on:
Roll up your sleeve. Take your cigarette and begin a circle in your pale flesh. Your skin stinks sweetly. Think bacon. Think pork cracklin's. The next day do your other arm.
It gets worse. Way worse.
Perhaps Pretty Little Dirty would be easier to dismiss if it seemed sensational or just plain dirty, but it's exquisitely written with notes of authenticity on every page. When you read Boyden's biography you can't help but be impressed: contortionist, trapeze artist, artists' model, gutter cleaner, dishwasher, can-can dancer and stunt woman, this author clearly did not come to writing via the usual approved routes. No one with this kind of life experience is going to write a bland novel.
You may be tempted to stop reading part way through, but because the writing has been so good, it won't be easy. Like the booze and cocaine Celeste and Lisa have come to need, you may become addicted after your first hit of Chapter One.
But when the going gets too tough don't forget you were warned, right from the beginning, and you decided to ignore those warnings. No one to blame but yourself for those sleepless nights, that nasty feeling in your stomach, that concern about your children, or your grandchildren, or your nieces. That warning is even implicit in that nasty little title, a title that's like a smear of offal on a white fence. pretty little dirty doesn't even get capital letters.
Is it really like that out there for our youth? Recovery is going to take time -- for us anyway. | August 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.