From the book jacket:
A spellbinding psychological debut, Swan Huntley’s We Could Be Beautiful is the story of a wealth woman who has everything–and yet can trust no one.
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 feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, gets weekly massages, and occasionally 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 and elegant, and they even have 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 Catherine finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny who wrote cryptically: “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, surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.
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Swan Huntley’s debut novel is a well-written first person narrative with a consistent voice and characterization, and for that I have to give her a lot of credit. I did not, despite the claims in the publisher’s description, find the heroine fascinating or the story seductive. Catherine West is a fairly reliable narrator, and it was almost interesting to be in her head. But even she would admit that she is shallow.
Spoiled by her trust fund and possessing a high sense of entitlement, Catherine is in her early forties, single, childless. Through Catherine’s narration, we learn that she regularly makes conscious choices on behavior, constantly trying to give the correct or expected response or facial expression even when a situation calls for something else. Extremely needy and looking for a man to rescue her from her admittedly shallow life, she is taken in by William Stockton’s charms because she wants to so very badly.
When the denouement occurs, it is not a surprise – and does not invoke any sympathy in the reader – it is the way it unfolds and how the family goes on that carries the story. Frankly, it was a bit of a relief as I had thought of alternate scenarios that would have been even more sordid and devastating to Catherine and her family.
I alternated reading and listening to the audio book, and the vocal performance by Cassandra Campbell (at 1.5 speed) was excellent, capturing just the right tones and accents. Her performance kept me listening, as did my inability to pause the ebook in time, despite certain scenes that would have had me putting the physical book down and walking away. Those scenes – meaning all of the bedroom scenes between Catherine & William – were just unpleasant (if a man asks “do you still trust me”and the woman answers “of course,” because that’s what he wants to hear, there are problems on multiple levels).
In the end, thankfully, there is some character growth. Catherine is not quite the same woman who would tolerate anything for the sake of feeling loved and who would go shopping and buy a $300,000 bag while hoping a friend will just hand her a million or two since she is going broke.
The plot is well constructed and perfectly paced, the characterization is believable throughout, with only a few miss-steps, though I could see the possible reasoning behind the author’s choices. While We Could Be Beautiful is not a book I see myself rereading, and not one I would recommend (swearing, sex, etc.), I am curious to read more by this author.
We Could Be Beautiful: a novel by Swan Huntley | Doubleday, June 2016 | hardcover, 340 pages
Along with a library audiobook, this review refers to a finished copy received in a GoodReads First Reads giveaway, courtesy of the publisher. As with all First Reads giveaways, a review is encouraged but not required. All opinions expressed are my own.