The Pretty One: A Novel about Sisters

  • Lucinda Rosenfeld
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 320 pp.

A lively look at three sisters’ ability to hold on to family — despite family.

The Pretty One: A Novel about Sisters takes readers on a wild and often witty ride through the adventures, neuroses, frictions and bonds of the Hellinger family. Lucinda Rosenfeld tells the story through the perspectives of three sisters, each one of whom has a specific profile within the family.

Perri (Imperia), the oldest daughter, is “the perfect one;” an exceedingly organized wife with an immaculate house, handsome husband and three precocious children. Peeling back the surface, however, one sees an obsessive-compulsive woman who suffers a martyrdom complex, shouldering responsibility for the whole family before anyone else can offer to help. When both parents are temporarily sick or injured, the additional responsibility she takes on intensifies the existing strain on her marriage, leading her to indulge in rash acts such as obtaining a fraudulent credit card and rekindling an old college flame.

Pia (Olympia), the middle daughter, has always been known as the “pretty one.” As the self-described “family fuckup,” she has led a seemingly carefree life, happy to let Perri take on responsibility, enjoying the favor of her family — and the attention of men — based on her striking good looks. Despite her consistently stylish appearance and her outwardly glamorous career at a contemporary art gallery in New York City, Pia grapples with the inevitable fading of youth and beauty, and with her inability to get over a previous relationship with a married man. In the absence of a lasting relationship, she has chosen to have a daughter on her own, and as the book begins, she’s contemplating searching for the sperm donor.

Gus (Augusta), the youngest, is “the political one,” practicing family law at the Legal Aid Society of New York while also lecturing on gender and contracts at Fordham University. After her girlfriend breaks up with her, Gus finds herself attracted to her brother-in-law, which causes her to question her identity as a lesbian. She has always been known to spill family secrets, and causes mayhem throughout the novel as she reveals her sisters’ secrets to people inside and outside the family.

This is a fast-paced book with some clever language and as many twists and turns as a telenovela. Rosenfeld’s style is light and breezy, and she paints her characters in broad and playful brushstrokes:

“In her spare time, Olympia … enjoyed shopping for clothes; listening to music; setting up other single friends on blind dates; perusing symptoms lists on WebMD and fearing that she’d contracted a fatal disease (and feeling, somehow, that she deserved it); and then, as a distraction from her worries, drinking excessively and reading the mystery and espionage novels she’d loved since she was a child, beginning with Harriet the Spy.”

Readers who are looking for a delicate portrayal of nuanced family relationships may want to pick up another novel. Rosenfeld seems to be aiming more in the direction of summer reading/soap opera, in some places extending to farce. For example, the girls’ mother cannot have a simple accident; instead, a Coca-Cola delivery truck driver rushing to get home for his 20th anniversary backs into a lamppost, which causes the glass orb to fall off and strike the matriarch on the head as she’s going to the pharmacy to pick up her husband’s prescriptions. Olympia’s ex-lover’s wife cannot be just any woman; she has to be a “daredevil French heiress who, while on holiday in New Zealand, had broken her back and severed her spinal cord partaking in the extreme sport of hydro-zorbing (i.e., rolling down the side of a mountain in a giant ball filled with water).” 

The family’s dynamics are chaotic and the dialogue can get a bit histrionic. Gus’ inability to conceal painful family secrets even from her newest lover is almost pathological — she calls her (spoiler alert) boyfriend of a couple of weeks, then asks him not to make her reveal her secret, then with minimal prodding winds up dishing even more dirt than she originally intended. 

Perri’s martyrdom is often and broadly telegraphed, as when Gus forgets to bring orange juice to a family breakfast:

“‘It’s fine,’ said Perri, inhaling through her nose. As if she were trying not to be mad but not trying all that hard. So everyone would understand the vast burdens shouldered by the Martyrs of This World, such as herself. ‘All the stores in town are closed. But I might … have a few cans of emergency concentrate in the basement freezer. I’ll run down there as soon as I finish cooking for all nine of you!’” 

The Pretty One is a lively look at three sisters’ ability to hold on to family — despite family. While the dialogue can be a little overwrought at times, Rosenfeld keeps the plot moving along with improbable trysts and near-trysts, chance meetings, a long-lost daughter, DNA testing, tearful reunions and more. One just has to be willing to suspend some disbelief as Rosenfeld brings all the loose ends together in the end. 

Tara Campbell is a university admissions professional by day and a writer by night. She is a member of the Washington Writers Group and the D.C. Interdisciplinary Writers Group. Her work has appeared recently on the Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal and the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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