The Pretty Girl, a novella and stories, by Debra Spark.
In Spark’s 2012 collection, the puzzling and the deceptive abound—in Illusions, miniatures, stories hidden in pictures—especially in pictures. These inhabit the lives of Spark’s characters as mysteries of a familiar nature: hidden family histories, missed opportunities with those who are closest, and the unknowability of spouses, siblings, parents. In “I Should Let You Go,” a young catalog photographer, Ginny, rents an apartment with a cousin stricken with breast cancer, an arrangement that produces bouts of friction and a house guest in the form of Vaclav Havel’s press secretary. During a catalog shoot, Ginny observes:
“There were a thousand sensible questions one could ask about the lengths to which they were going to create the illusion of daylight. The first being: why not just go outside?”
Though sensible questions are sometimes not the most useful ones, and in fact, the characters in this collection rarely get much traction from the sensible. In the face of the unpredictable and the baffling, the best strategy is an open mind. “There was no telling what might happen next,” the troubled protagonist of “Chocolate Mice” says. “And for the moment she didn’t care.”
Spark is the author of three novels including Good for the Jews; the essay collection Curious Attractions; and editor of the best-selling anthology Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America’s New Young Writers. Described by Booklist as a writer of “sly, funny and cutting” prose, she writes sentences that are a pleasure to read—breezy dispatches full of vivid observation, scrupulous reflection, and enduring recognitions.
The novella’s central character is Andrea. She is not the subject of the title, but a plain yet charming art history major: “…it wasn’t so lucky to be born beautiful. It was better to be forced into developing some attractive trait to win people over.” Andrea grows up with particular affection for her Aunt Rose, her grandmother’s unmarried sister, whom she visits regularly in her tiny Manhattan apartment. This is where Andrea first sees the painting that over time she regards “…as if it were no painting at all, but an opening into another world, one that only she, only Andrea, knew about, and one that she could climb into, just by willing herself over the painting’s heavy frame and into the world of The Pretty Girl.”
The unexpected is everywhere, and like the surprise of a mirror in a dark room, is both familiar and strange (and in fact, my favorite sentence in the entire collection might be “When Sharon opens the refrigerator, it barks.”).
In a recent essay, Spark described the challenges of writing “Toy Theater” and the artistic choices involved: “To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.” Each of the stories in this collection present the facts in a careful and curious light, yet allows its characters the chance to be present to what they can never really know.