When Beth “Bebe” Baker decided to leave her hometown of Toledo, Ohio with a trumpet player passing through town, she wasn’t convinced they’d make it all the way to San Fransisco. Seeing her ticket out of town, away from the jazz bar she’d been working since high school, Bebe grabs at it. She never expected to end up stripping and doing progressively harder drugs. And she never saw the life-changing accident coming.
Her legs and hands a network of gasp-inducing scars after the car accident that claimed the life of her drug-pushing trumpet player boyfriend, Bebe is left with the irony of an attractive face. Giving up after trying to single-handedly bring lightweight gloves back as an everyday fashion accessory, Bebe simply observes the shocked looks of strangers who are taken aback by her visible scars. She learns to hand cashiers money with her palm facing down. It’s the internal scars that are harder to heal, and without the help of alcohol, it’s difficult to feel numb.
Bebe has done some awful things, and she’s not proud of the person she has turned into, but she’s a sympathetic character, nonetheless. Childhood flashbacks of her mother moving in with a new boyfriend to try to provide a better life for her young daughter are touching, even while Bebe remembers how unhappy she was with a new father figure in her life. Talking with her mother on the phone is painful now, but part of dealing with the past is letting it touch you from time to time.
Characters all have their own black holes of history, whether it’s constant suicidal thoughts or facing a 180 degree shift in sexuality. Much of the central story revolves around Bebe’s roommates, halfway house residents with their own present and past addictions. No alcohol allowed? Cigarette burns aren’t too obvious. No drugs available? Fertile ground for an eating disorder. At least a stomachache makes you feel alive. The halfway house residents each seem to be punishing themselves for poor choices in a former life.
A cosmetology program provides training for former junkies and convicts to move on with a viable vocation. Most chapters start with Bebe’s countdown of how many hours remain in the training program. Getting through is a crucial step to moving on with her life, maybe even the way to finally reach San Fransisco.
Author Jillian Lauren vividly describes the mercilessly mirrored training area and disembodied doll heads that provide the mechanism for Bebe and her associates to learn to perm, curl, and trim. The damaged doll heads provide a creepy backdrop to the interactions of the students, their hair and makeup done up to mimic Hollywood starlet or celebrity personalities. Bebe recommends never taking your doll head home, because you’ll doubtless wake up in the night and freak yourself right out.
Lauren writes in a relentless semi-poetic style, keenly observing the small handholds that her characters grip to keep themselves from spinning into the void of addiction, or sobriety, whichever cycle they happen to be in. To keep the demons at bay Bebe bands together with other misfits, whether they’re her roommates or her classmates, and sometimes both.
Pretty is Lauren’s debut novel, and follows her acclaimed memoir, Some Girls: My life in a Harem. She blogs actively and with any luck will continue to turn out stories as compelling as Bebe’s in Pretty.