From Victorian toy theatres to a painting with a mysterious story behind it to a graphic novelist’s battle with the schizophrenia that causes her cartoon characters to march off the page, the novella and six stories in Debra Spark’s The Pretty Girl revolve around artists, artistry, and the magical—sometimes malicious—deceptions they create. With settings that traverse New York’s Lower East Side, Victorian London, Paris, and Switzerland, Spark’s stories twist and turn in mesmerizing ways as they reflect on the fictions we fabricate about and for friends, family, and strangers; in one story, a woman finds her life unexpectedly dramatized on the stage; in another, a couple’s reconnection with a family friend leads to a labyrinth of mysteries and miscommunications.
“Here’s a smart, sprightly, sex-drenched and neatly plotted novel about Midwestern life set in Madison. It’s got a beautiful 25-year-old inexperienced Jewish woman as its main character, some steamy sexual situations and a broad swath of serious political concerns about mid-sized city bigotry and the dangers of know-nothing bureaucracies. From its provocative title onward, the novel moves steadily along, with credible and often compelling characters, never averting its eyes from the betrayals and hypocrisy that make life in any town, a laboratory for the study of contemporary American mores.” — Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
“In her third novel, Spark holds a modern mirror to the book of Esther with a cast of characters from mid-2000 Wisconsin. Barring the Biblical suggestion of the title, the novel is a study of human qualities and the interrelationships of those who identify with Jewish culture rather than religion. Spark’s prose is tight, funny, insightful and occasionally heartbreaking as it probes the current education system, the arts and society’s ills.” — Publishers Weekly
“Spark is at her sly, funny, and cutting best in her third novel, a clever and affecting variation on the Biblical story of Esther. With agile dialogue, escalating weirdness and menace, and tricky questions of lust, love, fear, stereotyping, and hate underlying each hilarious, caustic, and unnerving scene, Spark’s canny novel of outsiders and insiders unveils many hard truths about the enigmas of the self and others in relationships both private and public.” — Donna Seaman, Booklist