Monday, March 13, 2023

Review of T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl, a daring novel of childhood fame, responsibility, and family in 1970s NYC

Click. Ryan Flannigan still flinches at the sound of a camera shutter, since it recalls her formative years as a child model and actress and the unwelcome attention she received from adults wanting to exploit her pre-teen prettiness. Now, in 2019, Ryan is a single mother in her early fifties living in rural Vermont, where she’s helped run a summer stock theater and quietly raised her daughter.

When an old friend alerts her to a news article with a risqué portrait from the worst night of her life, one taken during the New York City blackout of 1977, Ryan is shocked and confused. How did the photo come to resurface in the Paris apartment of billionaire Zev Brenner, a man recently unmasked as a pedophile? And why does it bear an affectionate inscription from Ryan’s mother, Fiona, on the back?

The subsequent suicide of Henri Dubois, an elderly photographer who’d been a father figure to young Ryan, draws her back to Greenwich Village for his memorial and in search of answers. Ryan never knew Brenner, but now she wonders how much her mother knew about his crimes. Fiona, however, has disappeared.

As the story shifts between eras, tension keeps this question open as Greenwood explores the fraught relationship between Ryan and Fiona, a would-be actress who moved the pair to New York in 1976 and lived through her daughter when her own auditions led nowhere. Adult novels with child narrators can be tricky, but Greenwood mostly stays within 10-year-old Ryan’s worldview in the 1970s sections. Introverted and anxiety-prone, Ryan adjusts well to the Westbeth complex, a real-life artists’ community, where she lives with a Hispanic American family who cares for her during Fiona’s too-frequent absences.

Ryan takes joy in doing kid things, and we feel her disconnect with the roles some adults manipulate her into, alongside her reluctance to disappoint. Alternately loving, neglectful, protective, and jealous of her daughter, Fiona herself is multifaceted and disturbingly drawn, a woman whose “need was like a balloon, stretched to its limits.”

Several elements distract from the mystery, like the adult Ryan’s unwillingness to read a note left for her by Fiona, thus delaying some revelations for plot convenience. Also, the name Ryan was almost never used for girls born in ’66, and I wish Greenwood had let Ryan ponder some of Henri’s actions in greater depth.

Other cultural references to a ‘70s childhood – decorating shoeboxes for school Valentine’s Day activities, the Hall of Gems at the American Museum of Natural History, watching American Bandstand on Saturdays – all check out. It wasn’t surprising to learn the author is my age and lived through the time she re-creates.

With Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes and Brooke Shields’ painful childhood experiences still circulating in the news, the novel’s theme of the “battle against a world in which girls are still often in peril” continues to strongly resonate. The novel offers much to ponder about what it means to be complicit.

T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl was published by Kensington in October 2022; this was a personal purchase.


  1. Mystica Varathapalan7:55 AM

    This sounds a very good read. Thanks for the review

    1. It was, and I'll be looking out for more books by the author.