Frances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.
A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.
Until she meets Kate Randolph.
Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart.
Because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunik. And she’s a murderer.
In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?
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About the Author
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Her Pretty Face
Frances Metcalfe was not the type of woman who enjoyed large parties, especially large parties where you had to dress up in a costume. Given the choice, she would have stayed home and pierced her own nipples with dull knitting needles, but fund-raisers for Forrester Academy were not optional. Despite the thirty-thousand-dollar tuition fee, the elite private school’s coffers needed regular infusions of cash.
The night’s theme was The ’80s!
Like, totally come as your favorite ’80s pop star!
Frances had taken the invitation literally and dressed as Cyndi Lauper. She admired the performer’s LGBTQ activism, and Lauper’s music had been the soundtrack to a more innocent time. But the full skirt and layers of belts, beads, and scarves may not have been the most flattering choice for Frances’s curvaceous body type. With her bright red wig and colorful makeup, Frances felt as if she looked like a cross between a deranged clown and a heavyset bag lady.
She wandered self-consciously through the school gymnasium, taking in the neon streamers and hand-painted posters.
GRODY TO THE MAX!
The childish, handmade decorations, courtesy of Ms. Waddell’s sixth-grade class, stood in stark contrast to the high-end catering: attractive servers in black-and-white circulated with trays of ceviche on porcelain spoons, seafood-stuffed mushroom caps, and Wagyu beef sliders. Frances had vowed not to snack at the party. She had filled up on raw veggies before she left home as all the fitness magazines recommended. Despite their plethora of articles devoted to the psychology of overeating (“Feeding Emotional Pain,” “Replacing Love with Food”), the magazines still recommended loading up on crudités to stave off the assault of caloric party fare. But eating at a party had nothing to do with hunger; it had everything to do with fear.
Maybe fear was too strong a word for the gnawing in Frances’s stomach, the slight tremble to her hands, the prick of sweat at the nape of her neck. It was low- to mid-level social anxiety; she’d suffered from it for years. When one had secrets, when one’s past was something to be hidden and guarded, mingling and making idle chitchat became daunting. The extra twenty-two pounds Frances carried on her five-foot-five frame, and the meager check she’d just deposited in the decorated donation box (it would undoubtedly prompt snickers from the fund-raising committee, several of whom were married to Microsoft multimillionaires), did nothing to boost her confidence.
But the apprehension Frances felt tonight could not be blamed on her past, her weight, or her unfortunate ensemble. What she felt tonight was real and present. The parents at Forrester Academy did not accept her, and their hostility was palpable. Meandering through the crowd, watching backs turn on cue, Frances hadn’t felt so blatantly ostracized since high school. She plucked a second glass of wine from the tray of a passing waiter and stuffed a truffle arancini into her mouth.
She’d had high hopes when her son, Marcus, was accepted into Forrester, one of greater Seattle’s elite private schools. Marcus was entering middle school; he was more mature now, and calmer. The diagnosis he’d received at the beginning of his academic career—ADHD combined with oppositional defiant disorder—was beginning to feel less overwhelming. The behavior-modification therapies Frances had religiously employed over the past few years seemed to be working, and cutting sugar and gluten from her son’s diet had made him almost docile. Frances knew Marcus would thrive in the modern glass-and-beam building, would blossom in the more structured, attentive environment of private education. The new school was to be a fresh start for Frances, too.
The Forrester mothers didn’t know that Frances lived in a modest, split-level ranch dwarfed by mansions in tony Clyde Hill, a residential area in northwest Bellevue. They didn’t know that her husband, Jason, had bought their eighties-designed, cheaply constructed abode from a paternal aunt for roughly a fifth of its current value. They were unaware that the Metcalfes’ Subaru Outback and Volkswagen Jetta were leases, that Jason’s salary would not have covered their son’s tuition if not for the help of a second mortgage on their run-down house, a house full of clutter that Frances seemed powerless to control. They were starting school with a clean slate. It would be a new chapter for their family.
It lasted three weeks.
It was the incident with Abbey Dumas that destroyed them—both Marcus and Frances. Abbey had teased and taunted Marcus until he had lashed out in a repugnant but rather creative way. During recess, Marcus had found his tormentor’s water bottle and he had peed in it. It wasn’t that big a deal. Abbey was fine, basically. (She’d had no more than a sip before she ran screaming to the teacher.) It was the disturbing nature of the incident that the school community couldn’t forgive. Disturbing: like the actions of a sixth grader could forecast a future spent torturing cats, peeping under bathroom stalls, keeping a locked basement full of sex slaves. Frances had promptly booked her son a standing appointment with a child psychologist, but Abbey’s parents had called for Marcus’s expulsion. Forrester Academy stood by him, though. They didn’t just give up on their students. The school community was stuck with them.
The chocolate fountain loomed ahead of her, an oasis in the desert full of faux Madonnas and Adam Ants. Frances knew she shouldn’t indulge, but dipping fruit in molten chocolate would give her something to do, keep her hands busy, and make her look occupied. She’d already exhausted the silent-auction tables, writing down bids for spa packages and food baskets, while desperately hoping that she didn’t win any of them. Jason had disappeared, swallowed by the crowd of parents, all of them made indistinguishable by their mullet wigs and neon garb. She made a beeline for the glistening brown geyser.
She could have chosen a piece of fruit—minimized the caloric damage—but the platter of sponge cake looked so moist and inviting that she stabbed the largest piece with a long, wood-handled fork and dunked it into the sweet flow. She had just stuffed the sodden confection into her mouth when she sensed a presence at her elbow.
“Hi, Frances.” There was a notable lack of warmth in the woman’s voice, but at least her tone wasn’t overtly antagonistic. Frances turned toward Allison Moss, so taut, toned, and trim in head-to-toe spandex. “Physical”-era Olivia Newton-John. Great.
Frances mumbled through a mouthful of cake, “Hi, Allison.”
“You’re . . . Boy George?” Allison guessed.
Frances frantically tried to swallow, but the sponge cake and chocolate had formed a thick paste that seemed determined to stick to the back of her throat.
“Cymdi Lumper,” she managed.
“The decorations are adorable, aren’t they? I love that the kids made them themselves.”
“So cute.” It came out an unappetizing glug.
Allison forked a strawberry and put it in her mouth, forgoing the chocolate entirely. “How’s Marcus?” she asked. “Enjoying school?”
Was there a hint of derision in her voice? A touch of cruel curiosity? Or was Allison genuinely interested in Marcus’s well-being? The Abbey Dumas incident had occurred almost a month ago now. Perhaps people were starting to forget? Move on? “He’s doing okay,” Frances said. “Settling in, I think.”
“Starting at a new school can be tough.” Allison smiled, and Frances felt warmed. Allison understood. Being the new kid was hard, and that’s why Marcus had done what he did. Abbey had picked on him and he’d overreacted. It was stupid. And gross. But he was just a boy. . . .
“How’s—” She couldn’t remember Allison’s daughter’s name. Lila? Lola? Leila? The girl was Marcus’s age, but they were in different classes.
“Marcus is so big,” Allison continued. Apparently, she didn’t want to shift conversation to her own offspring. “He obviously gets his height from his dad.”
“Yeah. Jason’s side of the family is really tall.”
“It’s nice to see him here. We don’t have the pleasure very often.”
Somehow, Frances’s husband, Jason, was not the outcast that she and their son were. Jason was tall, dark, and handsome (all but his height inherited from his beautiful Mexican mother). “He could get away with murder with that smile,” one of the infatuated Forrester mothers had once noted. Jason had also distanced himself from his difficult offspring and ineffective wife through work. His tech job kept him at the office until eight every night, and until midnight a few times a month. Obviously, the sole breadwinner, working to put food on the table for his family, could not be blamed for his son’s behavioral issues. That fell squarely on the shoulders of stay-at-home mom Frances.
Her gaze followed Allison’s across the room. It took a moment to recognize her clean-cut spouse in the fedora he’d donned for the fund-raiser, but she knew his confident stance in his pleated trousers, his strong broad back in the cherry satin blazer. (He was dressed as John Taylor from Duran Duran.) Jason was talking intently to a petite Asian woman with a lion’s mane of synthetic hair and a very short leather skirt. Tina Turner, obviously. She was laughing at something he had said, her head thrown back, her hand lightly resting on his shiny red forearm. She was attracted to him; it was obvious even from this distance.
“He seems to be enjoying himself,” Allison said, and there it was, subtle, but there: that condescending, mocking edge that Frances had come to expect from the Forrester mothers. Allison had veered from the usual narrative, though. Normally, Frances felt judged by these other parents as a poor mother, but Allison had taken a new tack and condemned her as an inadequate wife. It was effective. While Frances had developed something of a protective shell against criticisms of her parenting, she was completely vulnerable to assaults on her marriage. She knew that people, especially women, were surprised to learn she and Jason were a couple. He was gregarious, attractive, and fit. She was quiet, dull, and chubby. “Such a pretty face . . .” No crueler words had ever been uttered.
Allison was still watching the exchange between Frances’s husband and his flirtatious admirer. “Isn’t May adorable? And those legs! Her husband moved to Hong Kong to run Expedia’s Asian office, and she decided to stay. Divorce is hard, but May’s handled it so well.”
The adorable May was now clinking her wineglass to Jason’s. What were they toasting? Their mutual superiority to the people they had chosen to marry? Frances knew she was projecting her insecurities onto Jason. Her husband routinely assured her that he loved her, that he still found her sexy, that he had no regrets. . . . But it was evident—to Allison, to Frances, to everyone—that he could do much better. A bitter-tasting lump was clogging her throat as she watched her husband chuckle at May’s comment.
“May will find someone better.” Allison turned to Frances and smiled. “But not Jason, obviously. He’s married to you.” And then, as she reached for another piece of fruit, she murmured, “Too bad.”
Had Allison really just said that? Was she that cruel? Frances wasn’t sure she could trust her own ears. Her brain was spinning, lucid thought replaced by pure emotion: hurt, jealousy, anger. Time seemed to pause as she looked down at her diminutive companion, so poised and perfect and pleased with herself. In that suspended moment, Frances thought how good it would feel to kill her.
She could beat Allison to death with the chocolate fountain. The contraption probably weighed less than twenty pounds, and, once unplugged from its power socket, could be easily hoisted and swung like a club. It was an incredibly messy choice of weapon, but there would be a delicious irony in murdering toned, svelte Allison Moss with such a caloric and sugary vessel. Frances could almost hear the metal base cracking against Allison’s birdlike skull, see the blood spurting, mixing with the melted chocolate to form a savory-sweet noxious puddle. How many blows would it take to ensure Allison was dead? Three? Four at the most? For once, Frances’s heft would come in handy.
Alternatively, Frances could choke out the petite PTA mom with her bare hands. She could clutch Allison’s sinewy neck between her chubby mitts and squeeze. Frances would enjoy hearing her croak and wheeze and struggle for breath; thrill as the cruel light drained from her eyes, as the boyish body slackened and then crumpled into a heap on the gymnasium floor. This was a definitively less messy option, but it would take a lot longer. There was a high probability that someone from Allison’s crowd would tackle Frances before the job was done.
Frances knew she wasn’t psychotic. It was a fantasy, a harmless coping mechanism. That was her self-diagnosis, anyway. She could never tell a therapist about these violent thoughts, at least not one who knew what she had done in the past. But given the treatment she’d received at the hands of the Forrester community, was it any wonder her mind went to these dark places? She wouldn’t really kill Allison Moss—especially not in her son’s school, and definitely not in front of its entire parent population. The scandal would be legendary. She could see the headlines:
MIDDLE-SCHOOL PARENT PARIAH SNAPS, MURDERS COOL MOM AT SCHOOL FUND-RAISER
With the slightest shake of her head, Frances dislodged the homicidal whimsy. She gave Allison a tight smile and turned away, reaching for another piece of sponge cake.
“Hi, Allison.” The voice was forced, frosty, familiar.
Frances halted her fork in midair. She turned to see Kate Randolph’s tall, willowy frame looming over Allison Moss, and her heart soared. Her friend—her only friend in the school community—wore a white button-down shirt knotted under her breasts to reveal a flat, tanned stomach; faded men’s Levi’s; and heavy black boots. Kate’s caramel-colored hair had been back-combed and sprayed into a sexy bouffant. The effect was that of an eighties supermodel (and not a homeless clown, like Frances).
“Kate. Hi,” Allison said, suddenly deferential. “You look great.”
“Thanks.” Kate gave Allison’s spandex ensemble an obvious once-over. “Wow. . . . You’re really confident to wear an outfit like that at our age.”
Allison’s smile stayed in place, but insecurity flickered in her eyes. “I work out a lot.”
“Still . . . gravity.”
The tiny woman folded her arms across her breasts and changed the subject. “How’s Charles enjoying sixth grade?”
“So far, so good. And Lulu?”
“She’s great. Really blossoming.”
Kate gazed around the gym. “With all the money we’re paying, they couldn’t have hired a professional decorator?”
Frances saw Allison flinch, like her precious Lila had painted the rad posters herself . . . which she probably had. The wisp of a woman set her strawberry fork on the table. “I should get away from this chocolatey temptation. Nice to see you, Kate.” With a slight wave to Frances, she walked away from the two of them.
“That was awesome,” Frances gushed. Kate’s biting comments were far more rewarding than actual murder.
“Why, thank you, Cyndi Lauper.”
Frances smiled. “I didn’t think you’d come. You said you hate these things.”
Kate picked up a fondue fork. “I couldn’t let you face these stuck-up bitches alone. And besides, Robert said Charles would be expelled if we didn’t show up.”
“He’s probably right.” Frances looked over to see Kate’s husband, Robert, a fit fifty-something, talking to Jason. Robert Randolph was tall and dignified, almost attractive except for a slight overbite that gave him a mildly cartoonish affect. The older man’s costume consisted of a gray blazer with pronounced shoulder pads over a white T-shirt and a pair of black jeans. (David Bowie, maybe? Or David Byrne?) He’d been a lawyer in a past iteration (clearly a successful one to nab a hot, younger wife like Kate); dressing up was obviously not part of his lexicon. Jason and Robert were talking, laughing, the adorable May suddenly neglected. Frances watched as May casually wandered off.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Frances turned back to Kate. “I was about to drink this entire chocolate fountain out of sheer boredom.”
Kate stabbed some cake and doused it in chocolate. How could she eat like that and still stay so slim? “Daisy agreed to babysit her brother tonight, but only if he was asleep before I left.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a bad gig. Charles is so sweet.”
“Daisy hates him.”
“No, she doesn’t. She’s just fourteen.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kate said, through a two-hundred-calorie mouthful of cake and chocolate. “He drank all the orange juice this morning. I thought Daisy was going to stab him with her butter knife.”
Frances laughed and realized she was enjoying herself. It was all due to Kate’s presence. The two women shared a sense of humor and a disdain for Forrester’s snobby, cliquey, yummy-mummies. With statuesque, self-assured Kate in her corner, Frances felt more confident, less vulnerable to attack. Their friendship was still in its adolescence, but Kate had already earned Frances’s devotion.
Kate set her fondue fork down. “Where do I get some wine? Daisy’s charging me twelve bucks an hour. I’ve got to make the most of this night.”
“I’ll show you to the bar,” Frances said. Together, they picked their way through the crowd.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Her Pretty Face includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book
Frances Metcalfe, a stay-at-home mom with major insecurities, is doing her best to raise her son, Marcus, but her self-criticism only intensifies following an incident involving her child at his elite school Forrester Academy. Frances is lonely, a pariah among parents—until she meets Kate Randolph. Kate is a woman who seems, by all outward appearances, to have it all, yet for reasons Frances cannot quite understand, Kate bonds with her while ignoring all of the other moms. Frances and Kate are enjoying their friendship, and their sons become closer too. But both women have been living with secrets, and one of their secrets threatens not only to destroy their friendship but also to shake up their families and send the entire community into a panic. As suspense builds, the author weaves dialogues about friendship and vulnerability, the psychology of criminals and their victims, and the long reach of the past, leaving readers to consider: How well can we really know others? How much can a person really change? When should we forgive others—and how do we learn to forgive ourselves?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the story, many of the Forrester Academy mothers keep their distance from Frances because of something her son has done. Do you agree with their behavior? Why or why not? Does their opinion of Frances ever change? If so, what causes them to change their mind?
2. How do Frances and Kate become friends? Why do you think Kate was drawn to Frances in particular? What did Frances initially think about having Kate’s attention? How would you characterize their friendship? What kinds of things did the pair bond over? How did their friendship change both of their lives?
3. The novel reveals many of the social pressures adolescents and adults commonly face. What are some of these social pressures, and what actions do the characters take as a result of the pressure to fit in? What happens as a result of these choices? Consider how the novel depicts characters who are on the fringe. Why doesn’t Daisy deny Liam’s salacious claims when she has the opportunity? Why do Frances and Kate or Marcus and Charles have difficulties fitting in?
4. What examples of friendship are presented in the book? What draws these characters together and allows them to bond? What does the book convey about the impact a friendship can have in someone’s life? Alternately, what does the book seem to suggest about the effects of a lack of friendship or intimacy?
5. Evaluate the role of judgment in the novel. Who judges whom, and what seems to influence them in the formation of these judgments? Would you say the characters make good judgments? Discuss. As a reader, how did you judge the main characters, and what caused you to come to these conclusions? Did any of your initial judgments change by the book’s conclusion?
6. Why does Kate generally avoid her daughter, Daisy? Who does Kate say her daughter reminds her of? Why is this a problem? Do you agree with this comparison? Why or why not? How does the relationship between Daisy and her mother affect Daisy’s choices and imperil her? What does Daisy seek as a result of what she feels she does not receive from her parents?
7. Consider how the novel creates a dialogue around the subject of victim shaming—the notion that some people might “deserve” or somehow be partly responsible for a crime against them. Where do we see this theme emerge? What does DJ worry about most when he sees the newspaper article about his sister’s murder? What does Kate have to say about the fate that befalls Courtney Carey? Is victim shaming still a problem today? How do you think it might be solved?
8. What examples of vulnerability are evident in the novel? Are the characters willingly vulnerable, or would you say they are put into vulnerable positions via circumstances beyond their control? What happens to the characters who are vulnerable? Does the novel present a view of vulnerability as ultimately positive or negative? Explain.
9. Although Her Pretty Face dabbles in several genres, it could be labeled a psychological thriller. How does the author create suspense as the story progresses? How did she give us insight into the inner workings of the characters? How did this influence your own feelings about those characters? How did your point of view shift as the story moved along, and how do you think the author accomplished this?
10. How does Frances react when she discovers Kate’s secret? While others around her are able to make up their mind quickly, why does Frances struggle with knowing how to respond? Were you surprised by instances where Frances defended her friend? Why or why not? What questions arise in Frances’s mind about how to handle the situation, and what does she ultimately decide to do?
11. Is Frances ever able to come to terms with her own secret? How does her life change as a result of sharing the secret? Do you think she could have done so sooner?
12. Who is David, and why is he interested in Daisy? Do you think Daisy will see him again? In Daisy’s mind what connects her and David? Who else does Daisy connect with as a result of her experiences, and what does she take from this relationship?
13. Were you surprised by the story’s conclusion? How have the Metcalfes’s lives changed? Were you surprised by Frances’s reaction when she receives the mysterious communications at the end of the story? Why or why not?
14. What examples of forgiveness appear in the book? Does the book suggest guidelines for what can or should be forgiven and what leads to forgiveness? Is there anything that cannot be forgiven? How does the book create a dialogue about self-forgiveness and reconciliation with one’s own past mistakes? Would you say it is possible for Frances or Kate to truly move on from the past?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have a mock trial with your friends or book club. Have you ever served on a jury? How did you reach a conclusion of whether someone was innocent or guilty? If you were the prosecutor in Kate’s trial, how would you build your case? If you were Kate’s attorney, how would you have proved her innocence? If you were on the jury that was deciding Kate’s fate, how would you have determined her innocence or guilt?
2. Use the novel as a starting place to consider the issue of bullying and social pressures among adolescents. What does the novel reveal about the prevalence and culture of bullying in schools? Visit stopbullying.gov to learn more, gather resources, and begin a discussion about ways you can help to prevent and/or stop bullying in your own community.
3. Compare Her Pretty Face to other works of suspense such as Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. What do the books have in common? Do the books offer similar depictions of victimhood, criminals, and the effects and impact of crime? What common or overlapping themes do the books seem to treat? What lessons would you say readers could take from a consideration of these books collectively?
4. Read Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, a true crime book. How are the two books alike? What common themes do they deal with? What does the genre of fiction afford that is different than a nonfiction book?