Recently, I was wandering through the bug room at a museum. In the back corner, there was a wall of butterfly boxes. I turned to my friend and said, ‘If I’d grown up somewhere different, I wonder if I would have known that there were jobs like this. If I’d lived in a different town, I think my life might have taken an entirely different path.” And for a brief moment, I resented the life that brought me to this place where I wasn’t tacking these beautiful bugs in boxes. Then I got over it, because I was out with people I wouldn’t know on that life path. But the characters in Rader-Day’s “Little Pretty Things” are stuck in this cycle of life resentment. Especially Juliet. A once promising track star, she now cleans rooms in a rundown motel off the interstate. Her life is not sunshine and roses.
Small towns are… well, if you’ve never lived in one, you can’t really know. Literally. It is inexplicable to people who grew up in cities. I equate it to working in an office. You basically know everyone, and you have to be careful what you say where, cause information will always get back to someone it’s not supposed to. But in the small town scenario, there’s no going home. Home is just more people that you know. There’s no anonymous trip to the store. You buy tampons, you’re buying them from someone in your class, or the child of someone you work with, or the woman who’s been working behind that counter longer than you’ve been alive. If you’re trying to get pregnant (which everyone already knows), the town will soon know that it didn’t happen this month. If you don’t want people to know you’re having sex, you leave town to buy condoms. It’s a strange microcosm of awfulness. But for some people, small town life is exactly what they want. They like having the lack of anonymity. They like knowing their neighbours. They find security in it.
I believe there are two types of people who stay in small towns: the ones who like being the big fish in the small pond; and the one who can’t find their footing to get out of the towns clutches. Rader-Day focuses on this second group – people who are unhappy where they are, but don’t know how to get away from it. Juliet is trapped. By circumstance. By family. By her past. So when her oldest (and most successful) friend comes back to town, she’s understandably stand-offish. Maddy was always just that little bit better at everything. And now she’s quite a bit better at life. At least from the outside. When she tells Juliet that she wants to reconnect, Juliet brushes her off. Not wanting comparisons she can’t help making. But the next morning, Juliet feels guilty about how she acted and is determined to rekindle her friendship with Maddy. Until she finds Maddy’s dead body. The crime portion of the novel takes off with this event. Who killed Maddy? Why? How did the girl with a huge diamond on her ring finger end up hanging from the railing at a crappy roadside inn?
But the mystery of Maddy’s death is secondary to the story. It’s the action that drives the plot, but it isn’t its heart. What gives this book life is the desperation. Every character in this town is desperate to prove that they are no longer what they were in high school. But somehow, they keep getting sucked back into what they were ten years earlier. Isn’t that the way? We’ve all experienced it. You go home and suddenly you start reverting to things you used to do. Behaviours you’ve long since put behind you. It’s infuriating. Living in it all the time would be devastating.
Even in this tiny town, Juliet has done everything she can to remove herself from the picture of her as a runner up track star. She’s cut herself off from all the people she went to high school with. She now spends her time with people a decade older than her. The people that didn’t know what she was then. She’s cut herself off from anyone her own age so entirely that she no longer has a social life. Or knows how to have one. Instead she collects the cast offs of the transient residents of the motel and hides them in the bedroom that hasn’t changed since high school. She is stuck. As stuck as anyone can be.
Juliet is the central character in the book, but Courtney is my favourite. As much as she is the exact opposite of Juliet, more so even than Maddy, she is the same. Courtney, like Juliet, wants to distance her high school persona from who she is now. But instead of hiding from it, she throws her ambition into being more than she was. She was the girl on the yearbook committee, the school newspaper. The girl who should have left town. That would have thrived if she left. But for whatever reason, she’s still in town. Maybe she’s not stuck, but it feels like she is. So now she’s a cop. The best cop she can be in this town full of nothing. She’s over ambitious and suspicious. She wants to be better. She is a presence. Where Juliet tries to fade into the background, Courtney puts herself front and centre. She may not live in her childhood bedroom anymore, but she still lives in her childhood beliefs. She allows them to colour how she sees the people in her town. She can’t get beyond what they were when there were teenagers. To her, Juliet is still just the tag along to Maddy’s life. The one trying and failing to be better. Courtney will prove that she’s not like these girls.
What could be harder, or more disheartening? What an awful way to go through life. Trying to constantly distance yourself from what you were when your brain was still forming. And being shoved back into that person over and over again. When you were half a person. To never be able to leave behind the time when you were a little pretty thing. How do you ever escape that if you have to live in it? The people in this book are suffocating. Suffocated.
I think that’s the message here. Well, there are messages about (spoilers) being aware of what’s going on around you. Of recognizing sexual violence among teenagers. Of encouraging girls to speak up when victimized. But there’s a broader general message – stagnation is a killer. Juliet’s relationship with Maddy was constant competition, on the surface, but it was really the same thing over and over again. First place. Second place. Even when Juliet thought she was trying to beat Maddy, she always gave in to her friend. She gave up races for her friend. Races she could have won. Races that might have taken her away from the life she’s in now. And now she’s completely stopped moving and she is dying. Not physically, but emotionally. She is drowning in her inability to move beyond her youth.
Rader-Day sets up a fun mystery that ends with a disgusting outcome, but it’s the exploration into how we form our lives that gives the book strength. We all have moments where we wonder if we could have had a different, better, life. If one choice would have made a difference. Choices not necessarily made by us. Like my initial musings, if my parents hadn’t moved to the town they did, where would my life have taken me? If Juliet had won a race. If Courtney had left town. If Maddy had told someone what was happening to her. How would all of these lives have been different? And once we recognize that we’re stagnating, it’s our responsibility to make a change. To move before we start to rot.