A novelist friend once told me she loves the TV series American Crime because it focuses on "the other people affected, the ones you never hear about, when a crime happens." You might think creators of fiction, like my friend, would be the first to consider "the other people affected," but finding a suspense novel that upends both the linearity and the nature of what constitutes "crime" occurs less than I might like.
Fortunately, Mary Kubica's second novel, Pretty Baby, plays both with the timeline and with the notion of who is most harmed. Heidi Wood, a social worker, lives in downtown Chicago with her husband, Chris, and their bright but newly sullen 12-year-old daughter, Zoe. While commuting, Heidi notices a disheveled teenage girl toting a filthy, miserable baby. After seeing the pair more than once, Heidi approaches the girl — who gives her name as Willow Greer — and invites her to a local diner for a meal, ostensibly to discover whether the girl needs to go to a shelter.
We learn a lot about Heidi, Chris and Zoe in the first half of Pretty Baby, especially after Heidi invites Willow and baby Ruby to move in to their apartment. Chris travels a lot on business, but although a colleague is eager to get him into bed, he adores his wife and daughter — even when the latter tests her parents' nerves by shutting her mother and father out of her thoughts and room.
It's the perfect setup: Willow, seedy, suspicious and even scary (is that blood on her undershirt?), is going to worm her way into this family and destroy them. Will she steal all their valuables? Have an affair with Chris, who struggles to reconnect with Heidi after a serious health scare? Ruin Zoe's life and reputation? Heidi is so preoccupied with getting the sick baby well (it takes awhile for a doctor to diagnose a urinary tract infection, brought on by Ruby's dirty diaper) that she fails to consider most of the possible complications.
Kubica patiently constructs a tableau offering glimpses of Willow's before and after stories: She landed in a foster home with a dangerously abusive father figure — and, at some point, wound up in juvenile detention being questioned about murders (yes, plural). When and where did Willow give birth to Ruby? Who is Ruby's father? What does Willow want from the Wood family? When and how did she get taken to detention?
Most readers will get caught up in these questions as they watch Heidi try to take over all responsibility for Ruby's care. And when Chris engages a private detective to find out more about Willow, the story teeters on the edge of a climax in which one family's kindness is repaid with evil.
But Kubica has delicately misdirected our attention. I normally dislike endings that unspool quickly, seeing them as the result of fatigue or even laziness on the author's part, yet for Pretty Baby, the stage has been set while we were looking up toward the balcony. The fast-paced final chapters show us how easily we all ignore hidden infections in favor of surface wounds, and why "the ones you never hear about" may carry the deepest secrets.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets@TheBookMaven.