Title: Pretty Girl-13
Author: Liz Coley
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Well I'm in love with Liz Coley, and I've only just started this one! This novel impressed me from the off, so I am thrilled to be on my third novel in a row to which I find I can warm up. I love this title which translates to PG-13(!), but this book is a disturbing book, especially after the very recent revelation (at the time I'm writing this) of the three brothers who abducted three teen-aged girls and held them for a decade. I don’t know how anyone can come back from that, but it's heartening that people do. At least those women were not tortured and left in shallow graves; that is they weren't tortured physically in the commonly understood sense. They were very much tortured emotionally and psychologically, and that's more than probably worse.
In this fictional account (perhaps rooted in fact? I don’t know, but I'm going by Coley's dedication: For J, who survived) Angela Gracie Chapman was abducted from summer camp when she was thirteen. No one ever discovered what had happened to her. Now she's sixteen and "wakes up" walking down the street towards her home. Her parents almost go into shock; they're also victims of this crime.
The detective who was on the case arrives quickly and she's subject to the indignity of having to go to the hospital for a rape examination by a male doctor. Nowhere is there a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist of any appropriate kind available. I find that hard to believe - unless the hospital she was taken to was truly second rate. She can’t get such an appointment until the next afternoon.
Meanwhile, the nurse keeps calling her 'sweetie', which doesn’t seem to bother Angela in her 13-year-old state, but I definitely feel like I want to catch that nurse upside her condescending head for it. Angela blacks out for a few minutes when the doctor examines her vagina and no one seems to see this, not even Angela - not properly. Hopefully the psychiatrist will latch onto that. From her physical state, it's clear she has been manacled and held prisoner for the intervening three years, and from her mental state, it’s clear that she dissociated herself from what was happening and walled it off in order to try and cope with the horror of it, which accounts for the "amnesia" (yes, in quotes- more on this anon!).
She has flashbacks in a different person to things she did or things from which she was protected by dissociation. Her thirteen year old self did not know how to cook, but her sixteen year old self seems to have that knowledge hidden away somewhere. She's very strong for her size, and her hands are calloused, like she did hard work, but she cannot recall it. When she woke up that day on her own street, she carried a bag with clothes and a shiv. She recalls none of what that means.
Her immediate problem right then is that she still thinks she's thirteen and expects to be treated like that, but her dad won't even hold her hand. She can barely handle the knowledge that she's actually sixteen and the world has moved on three years while she was on hold like some kid's forgotten DVD. She can hardly stand to look at her face in the mirror which looks so different from her mental image of herself. Her favorite clothes don’t fit and her body seems like it belongs to someone else. It’s ironic that someone, someone with very piercing dark eyes, she half-recalls, "borrowed" her, and now she feels like she's borrowing someone else. Since her clothes are annoyingly useless, she goes with her mom to the mall to buy fresh, and is outraged by the prices. She buys very little, but later, she finds something in the bag that evidently her alter ego (or one of them!) lifted from the store without her (Angela's) knowledge. The fact that she lets this go without even analyzing it is portentous.
The psychologist, Lynn Grant seems very much on the ball. I was impressed with her first meeting with Angela. It was very well written. She failed to address what might happen if a media circus surrounds Angela, which I thought was an awful omission, but When Angela awakens from what she thought was a few minutes of hypnosis, she learns from Grant that she was "out" for a half hour, and Grant was talking to another personality called Girl Scout, not to Angela at all, and Girl Scout is very worried about Angela.
Angela has to fight her parents a bit to get what she feels she needs. Her father is being completely dumb about this, not understanding Angela at all, and her mother wants her to get back to normal. Her mother accidentally reveals that she's pregnant, and what with that and reading her mother's scrapbook that she started after Angela's disappearance, Angela is now half under the impression that her folks gave up on her and moved on, and that she's shortly to be replaced with the new baby. In the end, bolstered by Grant's agreement, Angela determines that she should go back to school, but start in ninth grade because she knows she has catching up to do, but not that much.
On her first day at school in her first class, she's recognized by a girl called Maggie, who takes Angela under her wing and surrounds her with supportive classmates who vow to help her catch up on school-work. That part is hilarious, and delightfully written. The potential problem starts as she's leaving at the end of the day, and she runs into her old friends from when she was thirteen: her "boyfriend" Greg, and one of her two girlfriends, Livvie. She has refrained from calling them because she felt really weird about it, and so young compared with them, given that she feels paused at thirteen.
She goes back with them to Greg's house and apparently does not realize the importance of calling her folks, who seem remarkably lax about her exposure and vulnerability in traveling to and from school given that she's an abduction victim. There seems to be no concern for her at all that her abductor might want to "re-acquire" her, or that the media might make her life hell once they learn of her return. She's reassured to see that Greg and Livvie still view her as a close friend, but she's surprised that they no longer hang out with the third of their foursome who evidently became a school pariah when she ratted them out for having a kegger. No one speaks to her any more. The immediate feeling I got after reading this was that Angela is probably going to end up seeking her out.
She seems to still have the hots for Greg, which she did at thirteen, but it does seems a bit awkward to me. It’s definitely an exceptional and forgivable case of instadore! I get the feeling that maybe all will not turn out well between them. But something goes very bad elsewhere, and unexpectedly so. Her favorite uncle comes to visit her and they go for a walk. Suddenly it's night and Angela is home and cannot recall the last several hours. Eventually she figures this out as one of her personalities surfaces for the first time - the one that took over every time she was raped by her captor.
This same personality tells her that her uncle has been abusing her for years, every since he began babysitting her. She became so agitated by it that she zoned out and this new personality, which she knows as 'The Slut' takes over. This is the personality which has been buying the exotic underwear and which puts on make up much more boldly than Angela ever would. It's also the personality that came out in the back seat of Greg's car one morning when he was supposedly giving her a ride to school. He took her for a ride sure enough.
Angela's personalities have begun frothing to the top as her therapy sessions continue, and she finally volunteers for an experimental treatment using gene therapy which is aimed at blocking the ability of specific neurons to communicate, which the doctor in charge of the study thinks will effectively kill Angela's alter egos. In order to do this, they have to map her brain using a CAT scan, while Dr. Grant brings out each personality one by one. Unfortunately, she can only bring two out, one of which is the slut
This assault, of course, causes a rebellion in her alter egos, and they become much more active. She evidently has four of them in addition to "herself". The Slut is a street-wise and very sexual being; Tattletale is a very young personality who communicates with Angela using a really old tape recorder she had as a kid. She is the one who dealt with her uncle's advances. Girl Scout is still around, but she has chosen to make herself scarce at this point. The Little Wife is the one who cooked and cleaned during Angela's captivity, and i had thought she was another personality, but Coley confused the issue. The Slut and Little Wife are both the same personality. That took some grasping. The Angel is a male personality which may well be the one who killed her captor - assuming this is what happened, and it's starting to look like that.
Angela has told Dr. Grant about all of these except for Tattletale and her knowledge of her uncle's sexual assaults. She's kept this a secret because she fears it will break up her family if it comes out that her father's younger brother has been molesting her. Her mother has already told her that her father is being so distant because he's wracked with guilt about not keeping his daughter safe. I must confess, suspicious little tike that I am, that I'm seriously wondering if her father knows more about her uncle's activities than he's willing to admit. But what bothers me more is that none of the doctors have any worries about what Angela will get up to when The Slut puts in an appearance. They're failing to adequately protect Angela from herself, and that bothers me. I don't know if it's written this way because Coley wants it like that, or if it's because she simply hasn't thought this through properly. I guess we'll find out as we go!
One thing which bothers me now is that Angela makes arrangements to babysit for a neighbor so she can pick up some cash. This bothers me because I'm now concerned about which personality is going to actually be doing the babysitting and what the consequences of that will be! As it happens that first night seems to go well. It's only after Angela gets home that the problems start. Her personalities like to come out at night and do stuff: like make diary entries, clean her room, do her math homework, etc! This means that poor Angela 'wakes up' without having had any sleep! The baby had concerned me because of Angela's personality splits, but having read a little further, it concerns me for a different reason!
Worse than this, however, is that Angela makes out (in 'The Slut' personality) again with Greg and he tells her that he's going to break up with Livvie, and start dating her again - but he never does break up with Livvie. As each day passes, he still sits with her at lunchtime at school. Angela goes shopping with Kate to get a nice dress for the upcoming formal. They run into Livvie and there's this serious bitch-fest which comes up between her and Angela out of nowhere! Livvie is obviously still planning on going to the formal with Greg. which causes Angela to pursue Greg about it and it becomes quite obvious (to us, but not to Angela, evidently) that Greg isn't going to leave Livvie. He makes out with Angela again and the next thing she knows, he's dropping her off at home with everything agreed, except that Angela can't remember the last hour. All she knows is that she has no one to go to the formal with.
I have to wonder where Livvie is during these times. If she and Greg are so close, how come he has all this time before and after school to get it on with Angela? How come neither he nor she have any concerns about STDs or pregnancy? Yes, I'm overly protective of Angela, because unlike some of the better female protagonists I've read about of late, Angela actually does need protection, and she's not getting it, not from her family, not from Greg, who supposedly is very fond of her at least, and not from her doctors! This can only end badly!
Angela has the procedure to eliminate the personalities, but they can apparently do only one at a time, and the first to go, at Angela's insistence, is The Slut/Little Wife. Before she goes, she puts in a quick appearance to tell Angela she left her a diary entry hidden in a drawer at home. When Angela reads it, she discovers that she was apparently impregnated by her "husband" during those three years. It isn't expressly stated, and Angela does not appear to read it that way, but the Little Wife's tale of growing fat and thin again?! But that's not the weirdest part - more on this in a few! Also Little Wife reveals that she conjured up The Angel to 'take care of' the husband.
Hey, for once I was right in my prediction! Yeay! Things ended way badly with Greg. But let's not jump too far ahead! So Katie has a boyfriend called Ali who has a brother called Abraim, both of whom I really like. The whole friendship with Katie is turning into something wonderful, and her interaction with Angela is precious. She isn't at all fazed by Angela's slow revelation to her (doled out carefully over their reacquaintance) that she has dissociative disorder. Katie thinks it's cool and embraces it whole-heartedly, casually bringing it into conversation without any hesitation or fear. The four of them go to the formal and have a good time, but Coley doesn't share any details. Instead, she jumps straight to where they drive up the mountain, and watch the sun come up.
WHAT? This is a sixteen year old, going on thirteen, who was abducted for three years, has some serious issues (understandably!), and her parents have no problem whatsoever with her quite literally staying out all night with a boy they've never met? (Her parents miraculously disappear from the story during that evening - nowhere in sight, which is distinctly weird!) This, I'm sorry, but this is bad writing, Coley's first real slip-up IMO. Greg chases down Angela (having been made suitably jealous at the formal!), and tells her he's dumped Livvie, and now they can be together, but Angela no longer has Little Wife the Slut on board, and she turns Greg down, so this monumental prick teams up again with Livvie and the two of them start a not-so-subtle hate-campaign at school, which no one in authority seems to have any interest in stopping! I find that a bit much. Angela is reduced to carrying around a small spray-paint can to spray over the absurdist and libelous graffiti they leave about her.
Worse than that, the evil Greg and Livvie call the press and reveal the story of the abducted girl returning home, so now the press is all over the school and all over her home. This I find unbelievable. Not that the press would behave like jerks, but that they would not have found out about Angela already. Everyone in the school knew. The students would have told all their friends and their parents. It's simply not credible that this story wouldn't have broken much sooner than this.
But let's roll with this one, because we have bigger poissons à faire frire (see how wonderful it looks in pretentious French? lol! Or should I say, Français prétentieux ?)! Anyway, Angela gets home to find not the press, but the police and the press, although why there are so many police is a mystery since they don't seem to be doing anything about the press. Detective Brogan is there, and he tells Angela that they've found the cabin where she was held, and while there was ample evidence of her being there, there was no trace of her captor anywhere to be found; the cabin looks abandoned. Did the avenging Angel kill off the criminal? It may be more complicated than that. Recall that apparent baby that seems to have disappeared? Was the baby killed? Or is the baby the selfsame one which Angela babysat?
Angela now has the opportunity to go with the police to the cabin to see if it triggers any memories, but she's not too fond of that idea. And why didn't the police, who are aware of her sessions with doctor Grant, have one of her personalities describe her captor to a police sketch artist? Angela takes this news badly and throws up. Later, sitting in the shower trying to get her other selves to reveal something Angela is convinced they're hiding from her, The Angel shows up and his hands are bloody and he begs Angela to get rid of him next so neither she nor anyone else can discover what he did. Angela doesn't want to let him go, because he protected her from Greg. She now regrets even "killing off" Little Wife/The Slut.
Then Angela comes back into herself to find the bathtub bloody. She just had her period. So this complicates things! I love this story! If this is her first period, it explains why there was no issue with pregnancy in her trysts with Greg (although STDs still remain a problem - and note that Coley makes no mention of Angela being tested for any such thing after her return, which is one thing I'm sure they would have done). However, if this is her first period, there is no way she could have become pregnant during her stay at the cabin, But I think this is a red herring on Coley's part! Shame on her trying to mislead me like that. I thought we were friends!
When Angela gets back downstairs after her shower, something truly weird happens. Her mother refers to detective Brogan by his first name. Coley has made me so suspicious now that the first thing I thought when I read that was to ask myself: "Did Angela's mom have an affair with Brogan? Is the baby she's carrying actually his? Am I evil or what? Hey, Coley did this to me, making me second-guess everything she's writing! It's not my fault!
Angela discovers that Doctor Grant cannot get her in to erase The Angel until after Thanksgiving, so she's stuck with him until then, but there's no word on whether Angela talked to her and told her anything about what has happened recently, so I'm forced to assume they didn't talk. This isn't good, because Angela is already irrationally tarring herself as a murderer, and now she has all Thanksgiving to let it eat her up. But it gets worse: Coming over for turkey is that turkey Uncle Bill who raped her repeatedly when he was supposed to be babysitting her.
He starts feeling her up in the kitchen every time they're alone until The Angel surfaces, breaks his fingers, and stabs him with a large fork. But it gets worse. Her father comes running in at this ruckus and tackles Angela to the ground claiming she's finally had the psychotic break he was expecting all along! I want to kick that son of a bitch squarely in his juvenile balls before I cut them off and feed them to the neighbor's dog. I hope Coley has some deep, penetrating revenge coming down on both these scum.
Her mother is no better - she calls for an ambulance! Now the picture is complete: Angela's abuse started long before she was abducted, long before rapist Bill started on her. It started with Angela being unfortunately born to parents who are complete dickheads. As the siren approaches (seriously - they got here that fast?) Bill the pond scum punches her in the stomach and pins her arms behind her back and the medics, brain-dead robot puppets that they are, immediately inject her with a sedative, and she blacks out.
Some one needs to fire those medics. Angela wakes up in a room, restrained on a bed, with her mom sitting by. When she reacts negatively, not violently, but merely negatively to her mother's mention that Bill (or is it Bull?) is fine and forgives Angela, her mother threatens her with another sedative! Angela (and I cheered when I read this!_) asks her mother to leave and requests doctor Grant to come in. Coley slips a bit here, too, because when Grant comes in, Angela asks her to remove the restraints (which remind her horribly of her abduction and imprisonment) and Grant acts shocked that she's even in them. This is a trained psychologist who came back from vacation to see to Angela, and who has already spend some considerable time there that day, yet she apparently didn't observe that Angela was in restraints, nor did she note it from her chart - a chart which is she was any kind of decent doctor, she would have thoroughly taken in the first chance she got!
This novel is divided into four sections, starting with You, then We, followed by Us (I think - I went thru the book several times trying to find section 3 and couldn't!), and ending with I. The end of section 3 is a bit too pat for my taste. Angela, who has discovered the The Angel was eliminated while she was sedated, miraculously integrates the other two by herself. I don't like this part because it sends a misleading message that anyone can overcome the most appalling mental trauma with barely any effort at all. But the story isn't over yet and I'm excited to read the last section to find out what's hidden behind the firmly closed door that The Angel wouldn't even let Angela's other personalities through. I think Coley wants us to believe it's the secret of Angela killing her captor, but I'm convinced, rightly or wrongly, that it has to do with babies.
Coley betrays Angela here because rapist Bill evidently gets off with a restraining order and no jail time. Now Angela's grandmother is pissed off with Angela for forcing her to choose which of her two sons she will favor. She chooses to favor the rapist. Angela makes a date with Abraim - the first upon which they will have gone without Katie and Ali along for the date, but before that, she has to babysit. There is it again. Coley has to be telegraphing this baby stuff for a reason!
Or maybe not! Angela has an uneventful babysitting, that is until she touches the baby blanket when she's checking on him, and suddenly the Harrises are back home and it's one o'clock. Now where did the two hours go? It looks like Angela actually isn't quite as integrated as she thinks she is. Did we get a trip behind that locked door which The Angel wouldn't let anyone past? Angela sleeps very late the next day and when she finally gets up, she realizes that her rocking chair has been moved. This was a regular occurrence during her split days, but it should no longer happen. Angela arrives at the disturbing conclusion that there's yet another personality which has never even surfaced, let alone become integrated with the rest of her!
I so love this novel, and that's where I'm going to leave this review. This novel made me excited, angry, emotional and anxious to read the next page. Despite some issues and flaws (which Coley commendably addresses in an afterword where she reveals that 'J' was indeed an Angela but in real life), this novel is possibly the best I've read since i started blogging this year. The ending is awesome and so well written it makes me depressed that I didn't think of it! I am definitely going to be stalking Coley's name on bookshelves in future!