Wednesday, May 20, 2020

“Pretty Things” by Janelle Brown – Ballad of Liars and Models

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown (Book cover)
Janelle Brown has shown herself time and time again quite capable of weaving original and entertaining stories, and Pretty Things is the latest showcase of her talents. The plot follows two drastically different women, Nina and Vanessa.

The former realizes she must engineer a scam for the ages to pay for her mother's medical bills, while the latter once shunned Nina and is living the luxurious life of an Instagram model. As the two see their paths colliding, complications of all shapes and sizes begin making their way to the surface.

Janelle Brown Orchestrates a Clash of Fates

For the great majority of people on Earth, crime is something we tend to instinctually avoid committing, understanding the concept of harm being, in general, a bad thing. However, a truth we all know to some extent is many people get pushed into it through circumstances outside of their control.

After all, if the life a loved one was in imminent danger, many of us would very likely consider criminal options if they could remedy the situation. This is exactly the kind of situation Nina finds herself in, the protagonist of Janelle Brown's Pretty Things.

Nina Ross doesn't have too much going for her in a life, armed with a liberal arts degree which hasn't really gotten her anywhere significant.

While generally this wouldn't be a problem, it suddenly becomes one when she learns her mother is ill, and the treatment costs a fortune, much more than she could afford on any salary her degree would earn her. Looking to her mother's own past, she finds the answer: she has to go through with one of the riskiest but most rewarding scams in ages.

At the same time, we are also presented with Vanessa Liebling, heiress to a vast fortune who once snubbed Nina without much of a thought. These days, she spends her busy life as an Instagram model, showing off the countless clothes and pieces of jewellery she is sponsored to wear.

Living her life in a cloud above the regular people, Vanessa is, if anything, disconnected from reality, the people around her, and most importantly, their intentions. Inevitably, her path collides with Nina's, creating complications of all shapes and sizes neither of them will forget.

A Matter of Perspective in Pretty Things

One of the greatest qualities a novel can have is the ability to hook the reader with the first pages, if not sentences. In Pretty Things, it felt obvious from the get-go this wasn't going to run-of-the-mill con artist story, instead aiming for greater things.

If I had to pick one specific element which elevates this novel above many of its peers in the genre, I would say it's Brown's ability to write two different perspectives which complement each other and add to the story in equal measure.

Nina and Vanessa are our eyes, ears and brains through the course of this novel, with the perspective switching back and forth between them rather frequently. For one, this helps to maintain a certain cycle of variety in the novel, with both characters being very distinct and generally on different ends of the spectrum in their perception of life.

Even during the middle of the book when it felt like the action had slowed down a bit, the shifting perspective played a strong role in keeping me engaged as I was always curious to know the other side of any given event.

As I mentioned above, these perspectives complement each other, allowing us to see events from different sides, in turn leading to the characters having some tangible depth of their own. Brown did an amazing job at making them feel like real people, personally I could never bring myself to totally love or hate anyone in this book.

No matter how good someone's intentions might be they still have a dark side to them, and the villains are more often than not motivated by a logical and justifiable chain of reasoning. The development they go through as a whole is considerable and quite interesting to follow as it happens.

Unravelling the Long Con

While Pretty Things might be going quite strong on the character development, at heart it doesn't forget what it is: a thriller. With books in this genre being a dime a dozen these days, I find it increasingly difficult to find stories which I don't feel like I can predict, but this novel certainly fell into this category.

While of course some of the twists could be seen coming, the big and important ones took me by surprise, and on many occasions my expectations were defied in a pleasant manner. Brown doesn't abruptly pull the rug from under you for the sake of it; the setup and execution are always carefully tended to.

If we overlook the bit of a drought which happens in the middle of the book, for the most part the intrigue evolves in escalating fashion, and the deeper we see our characters engaged in the game of cat and mouse they've become trapped in, the more frantically they seem to be moving forward.

I don't want to spoil any more about the plot than I already have, but I will say the con itself is quite cleverly-engineered and it's quite apparent the author spent massive amounts of time perfecting it and plugging up all the holes.

The plot is also enlivened by the various thoughts shared by the author in regards to social media and the extent to which it has shaped modern society. Contrary to what I expected initially, she offers quite a balanced perspective on the matter and doesn't see it as the ultimate evil to have graced this planet, like some imagine.

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown (Book cover)
Her observations about society are both amusing and at times thought-provoking, and perhaps most importantly, dispersed with enough distance between each other throughout the whole thing.

The Final Verdict

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown is a con artist thriller a good bit more profound than what we're used to seeing in the genre, offering varying perspectives, complex characters, an intricate deception plot, as well as some timely observations about reality.

If you enjoy your heist thrillers more on the profound and character-driven side, this book will definitely be right up your alley.

Janelle Brown (Author)

Janelle Brown

Personal site

Janelle Brown is an American author living in Los Angeles who wrote numerous New York Times bestsellers, including This Is Where We Live, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and Watch Me Disappear.

She also works as a journalist and essayist, with her work having appearing in numerous publications including Wired, Elle, Vogue, Self and The Los Angeles Times.

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