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We Could Be Beautiful


We Could Be Beautiful

Every once in a while, you encounter a character in fiction who is completely unlikable, as unsympathetic as it’s possible to be. Yet the novelist is skillful enough, the concept or the prose or the plot compelling enough, that you find yourself continuing to read and possibly, eventually, even caring about this character after all.

That’s exactly what happens in Swan Huntley’s debut novel, WE COULD BE BEAUTIFUL. Catherine West could probably be categorized as a psychopath. Seemingly unable to experience empathy or even to recognize that the people who surround her are, indeed, actually people, she is consistently perplexed by the behavior of her various acquaintances and employees. Catherine is in her mid-40s, fabulously wealthy, and utterly fixated on finding a husband and having a child. So when, at an art gallery, she encounters William Stockton, the handsome, charming son of one-time West famiy friends, their immediate chemistry seems too good to be true.

"What makes WE COULD BE BEAUTIFUL a fascinating read is Catherine’s narration, which is simultaneously cold, clueless and eventually, almost despite itself, worthy of compassion."

Catherine and William’s relationship proceeds quickly, especially when Catherine discovers that, contrary to her assumptions, her $80,000 monthly allowance from her late father’s trust is about to run out, and her mother, possibly as a result of her Alzheimer’s disease, has given almost all of her own money to charity. The only way Catherine can stand to inherit more money at this point is to marry and have a child, at which point she will get 10 million dollars. Catherine envisions her beautiful West Village home, her art collection, and her small stationery boutique all slipping away before her eyes.

So even as she starts to have second thoughts about William, taking account of his sometimes manipulative and controlling behavior, his tendencies toward violence in the bedroom, and some offhand comments made by her own mother about William and the Stockton family (although who can really trust anything she says anymore?), Catherine soldiers on with plans for their picture-perfect New York society wedding.

What makes WE COULD BE BEAUTIFUL a fascinating read is Catherine’s narration, which is simultaneously cold, clueless and eventually, almost despite itself, worthy of compassion. There is certainly an element of “poor little rich girl” to Catherine’s dilemmas, one that may be a turn-off to some readers. But the real reason to read this debut novel is to see how Huntley manages to perfectly capture the thoughts and voice of a woman who is seemingly incapable of thinking about anyone but herself. Often her only thoughts about other people are to wonder how she appears to them. Readers who are more attuned to human emotions than Catherine herself (which would be almost everyone) will find at times both humor and pathos in the various ways in which Catherine misreads or simply fails to see the people who surround her.

Of course, most protagonists undergo some kind of revelation or evolution or growth --- otherwise there’s not much of a story, at least in a character-driven novel like this one. And that’s true even of Catherine West. The book probably would have been stronger, in fact, had it ended a chapter earlier; the closing chapter commits a first-time novelist’s common misstep of telling the reader a bit too much about what the book they’ve read has been all about, rather than letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions. That said, those who don’t choose their novels based solely on the protagonists’ “likability” will likely find a lot to consider in WE COULD BE BEAUTIFUL, both in Huntley’s skillful portrayal of a complicated, sometimes ugly character and in their own reaction to that character.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 30, 2016

We Could Be Beautiful
by Swan Huntley