AUGUST 5, 2016
WE COULD BE BEAUTIFUL, the debut novel by author Swan Huntley, offers an enthralling, in-depth character study of Catherine West, a trust-fund baby who seems to have everything:
I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.
She’s in her early 40s, but thanks to her personal trainer and a little Botox — “the trick with Botox was to leave the forehead alone” — she still looks great. Her hair is long and beautiful — her trademark, really. She has a masseuse come every Sunday to help with any stress, and on a bad day, she can always go shopping and pick up a $3,000 purse because she likes it.
It sounds perfect, or at least beautiful — but looks are deceiving, aren’t they?
Over the course of this slow-burning psychological thriller, Catherine draws us in to watch her slow fall. She isn’t necessarily the most likable character, but she is fascinating, and her narrative voice has a mesmerizing pull.
It’s obvious from the outset that Catherine seeks beauty — in art, in others, in herself — with passion, but she’s unable to see anything deeper; she never gets past the surface with anyone or anything, and she seems genuinely unaware that there’s more underneath. It’s as though she has seen a series of paintings depicting real life, and she’s living them, but never delving deeper than that first layer of paint. And it would seem that Catherine’s wealth and privilege protect her from the ugliness of real life. Even the people who work for her are attractive. “All the people who worked for me were good-looking. Sometimes I wondered if this was intentional. […] But it wasn’t intentional. Of course it wasn’t. I was just lucky.”
Catherine believes that she’s a good person because she knows what that should look like. “I was […] a really good person,” she recites. “I volunteered at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving; I paid my housekeeper well and on time. I was a good sister, a good daughter […] I had substance. I was conscientious […] I voted. I recycled. I tipped generously. I gave money to homeless people on the street.” But Catherine fails to realize that these good gestures don’t add up to genuine goodness. They don’t make her compassionate toward her mother who is ill with Alzheimer’s, nor do they compel her to make connections with the people around her, including her only sister: “This was only the third time I had said ‘I love you’ to her; yes, I was counting.” And yet even when she tells her sister she loves her, “it might have been more for me than for her. I was making a serious effort to become softer.” Because according to Catherine, her sister’s desire for a connection, for love, is desperate and simply “exhausting.” But becoming softer? Well, that’s something that men appear to like, and so clearly something that Catherine should work on.
Because appearance is everything. Instead of having a meaningful conversation with Vera, the woman who runs Catherine’s small stationary shop, Catherine thinks that:
it would have been unprofessional […] Mostly, though, it would have tampered with the image Vera had of me, which was of someone who was very lucky and very together and very happy, or at least as someone who wore quality clothing and who appeared to be moderately contented […]
Catherine’s appearance and how she will be perceived by others is simply far more important. In fact, Catherine admits that she “loved telling people that I was a small-business owner. It made me relatable.” The fact that she is rarely there and minimally involved is of little consequence. What is important is that it appears as though Catherine is engaged in her business; she believes that is what will make her relatable to people, instead of actually relating to them.
She substitutes these appropriate, de rigueur decisions for her own sense of taste, of personality, of self. She reads a book about apartheid because “it was one of those books everyone said you had to read […] I read the opening paragraph and closed the book. (I had done this at least twelve times.)” When someone asks if she likes a song, Catherine can’t decide what the correct answer is: “I felt like I was supposed to say no, and then I felt like I was supposed to say yes. It was so hard to know what the right answer was sometimes.” She’s unsure of her own opinions because she can’t form any for herself. Her need for the correct appearance is so overwhelming that she can’t heed her own likes and dislikes. In fact, sometimes she can’t even decide “[w]ho was I trying to be that day?” And it’s in these moments of crippling uncertainty that the reader feels sorry for Catherine. Wealth has obviously not brought her happiness — it’s allowed her to shroud herself in so many disguises that she has no idea what really defines her.
Huntley’s prose style is impressive, especially for a debut novel. The narrative is able to sustain the character’s detached and desperate voice throughout. And while Catherine West may at times sound sociopathic, she is not unsympathetic. Her inability to identify real emotion or relate to others is clearly inherited from her mother, who is “cold and detached and thought emotions were a handicap,” and enabled by her wealthy and insulated life. As her mother declares, “Money has made this family and money has ruined it.”
It comes as no surprise then, that Catherine feels something is missing from her life: “[D]espite my good deeds and my good fortune, I felt incomplete.” And despite all the other possible answers, Catherine is convinced that love — specifically romantic love — is what will fill the void she feels so sharply. Of course, she isn’t sure exactly what that is, despite being engaged several times and having a “million boyfriends, and even one girlfriend”: “Even in my best relationships, I wasn’t sure I had ever been truly in love. This bothered me. A lot. I thought about it all the time. I was sure it was part of the incompleteness I had always felt.”
When she meets William Stockton, her fall is hard and fast. He’s perfect. Good-looking, rich, intelligent, well-spoken. They will be beautiful together. Catherine thinks they are happy because they appear happy, even though they have little in common, little to talk about, and little sexual chemistry. Instead of considering that he might be wrong for her, Catherine tries to shape herself into what she thinks he wants. “I thought about him all the time […] my eyebrows. Would he like the new shape the aesthetician and I had agreed on? I’d be at a store picking out dresses based on what I thought he would prefer.”
A desperation for something more pushes her into William’s arms. William moves into Catherine’s house within two weeks. Within six weeks he proposes, and though it’s obvious to the reader that something is very wrong — a too-quick engagement, a mysterious and obviously upsetting past with her own mother — Catherine misses those warning signs. When Catherine’s mother has a somewhat violent reaction against William, Catherine writes it off as her mother’s Alzheimer’s making it difficult to gauge the truth. “Of course Mom’s reaction bothered me, but I couldn’t trust it either. Even pre-Alzheimer’s, she’d had a tendency to hate people for no apparent reason.” Except Catherine’s best friend Susan doesn’t like him either: “I think he’s a little Talented Mr. Ripley, and I don’t want you to get hurt again.” But Catherine so badly wants her love with William to be real. She thinks she is running out of time to find the love that will fill her empty life: “Of course I knew everyone thought we were moving too fast […] But the hourglass was running out of sand.”
It’s also obvious Catherine has little idea how a real relationship functions, which explains why she misses so many other red flags with William — red flags that serve to ratchet up suspense for readers. The fact is that they barely talk about real issues:
William had a tendency to pull away when he was stressed […] maybe that was okay. Some couples didn’t talk that much. It implied there was an unspoken understanding, a certain level of comfort. My image of this included a serene-looking couple in their nineties, reading the newspaper on a park bench […] and not speaking for hours.
Or that she felt she couldn’t speak honestly with William, but that perhaps honesty would come later: “Later, when we knew each other better — we could be more honest then.” She thinks it’s charming and mysterious when he refuses to talk about his past, and when she looks through his things for some clue as to who he is, she thinks it’s reasonable how angry he gets. And the nonconsensual sex acts? Well, Catherine writes those off as a normal part of a relationship.
We Could Be Beautiful is simultaneously a sly commentary on wealth and privilege — a sort of inverted Sex and the City — and a thrilling meditation on the blind spots of intimacy and love. The stakes are more personal than we usually see in the crime genre — a lower potential body count — but the suspense is thickly palpable as we watch Catherine uncover the truth about William. There’s suspense, too, in Catherine’s personal journey — will she ever experience real emotion and genuine human connection? Huntley manages to turn this cold, wealthy woman into an underdog whose desperate quest for fulfillment leads her to make terrible and disastrous choices. Through Catherine, she underlines our society’s fixation on superficial goals, and the terrifying price that can be paid for empty rewards.