& Review: We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

The Book Itself: The shiniest cover I’ve ever seen, I could have probably blinded people had I read this in a sunny area somewhere. I like the woman blurred to the point that we can’t recognize her, the title and intricate scrollwork obscuring her face. I think it’s saying something about superficiality, and not wanting to see what’s right in front of you, but that could just be the English major in me, looking for meaning where there isn’t necessarily any.

My Review: Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she’ll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine’s parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer’s), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth’s old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: “We cannot trust anyone…” Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

I either like books about privileged, upper class people, or I hate them. I don’t love the woe is me I’m so rich but so unhappy message that so many stories seem to bring to light. I do like when the privileged protagonist (say that ten times fast!) learns something from his/her actions, or changes the game somehow. It can be a kind of escapist fantasy, reading about a character who can go out and buy $600 handbags and thousands of dollars of furniture without batting an eye. For a moment, you can imagine doing that too…and then the crippling reality sets in, about the mortgage/rent, your car payment, that credit card payment you’ve been putting off, etc. etc. etc.

ANYWAY. We Could Be Beautiful is a story about a rich woman. Of the trust fund variety. Catherine West (even her name sounds rich) doesn’t worry that her bespoke stationary boutique never turns a profit. She never frets about rent, clothing herself, or pursuing her hobbies. Every month she gets a hundred thousand dollars or so, and that is that.

Enter William Stockton (again: rich-person name). Because Catherine is just not as happy as she feels she should be, and she’s had troubled relationships in the past and here comes this guy who seems just too good to be true. And surprise, surprise: he is. And we spend the rest of the story puzzling out just why he is.

William as a character comes across as very stilted. In a way, this makes sense: Catherine is so blinded by the fact that she is desperate for someone to love her that she can’t see just how hypocritical and downright rude her partner is being. But William is kind of an ass. The whole time. It is hard to see what is appealing about him, what truly draws Catherine to him. He belittles her when she uses foul language, her best friend immediately dislikes him, they have consistently disappointing sex, and he never speaks a word of his past. On their own, these little things are just character quirks. Aspects of a personality that would make a well-rounded character more interesting. But piled up like this, it feels like the author is just trying to bang us over the head with how bad William is. It would have been far more compelling for me if William were more appealing, and this his secrets were slowly and viciously revealed. As it sits, you just see it coming from a mile away.

Overall, the story and character development felt like they were plodding along to me. I’m not sure if it’s the writing style, or the story’s actual events, but although finding out William’s secret is the main hinge of events, I did not feel overwhelmingly compelled to find out what it was. This was partly because I could already see he was Bad News and that this book would come to that conclusion eventually, and Catherine would move on. But it was also because there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Catherine was in no hurry to confront several facts about her life: that there is something wrong with her boyfriend, that there is something wrong with her family, and that money cannot buy everything (especially when that money starts to run out…)

It’s an escapist read, but Catherine doesn’t really learn anything from the story’s events. I don’t feel like she has grown emotionally at the story’s close, and that leaves a lackluster taste in my mouth. It’s a light read, with an intriguing central mystery, but it’s not my favorite beach or summer read.

My Grade: C-

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