She’s Too Pretty to Burn is an intriguing, but uneven read. It opens like a teen romance, and ends like a thriller, but the transition between the two is jarring and disruptive to the reading experience. It’s also supposed to be inspired by The Portrait of Dorian Grey which I didn’t get at all from the text.
The novel centers around three people: Mick, a high school swim star with a troubled home life; Veronica, another high schooler and aspiring photographer; and Nico, a (maybe twenty-something–it’s not really established) installation artist.
Mick is in a fragile place. Her mother is a model whose career is fading. Her mother’s agency wants Mick to model with her, but Mick is terrified of being photographed and scrutinized. I read her fear as a sort of social anxiety: she’s not especially comfortable in her own body and she knows she has no control of the image when it gets out. Mick refuses and her mother (who is toxic AF) kicks her out.
Mick meets Veronica at a party and the two have a wild night on the town that ends up with them kissing and with Veronica taking a forbidden photo of Mick. She tells Mick that there’s no film in the camera, which isn’t true. Veronica later posts the photo to social media and it goes viral, eventually landing her in a show that could launch a photography career for her.
Then there is Nico, Veronica’s friend and eccentric installation artist. Nico was a foster kid who lived in Veronica’s neighborhood for awhile but was never part of her affluent world. Now he’s living on the fringes of society trying to launch an underground art movement that borders on eco-terrorism.
There are three plotlines running through the book. The first is the romance between Mick and Veronica. Their relationship starts off with Mick dependent on Veronica for support after her mom kicks her out (she stays with Veronica for awhile) so there’s always a power dynamic here that doesn’t feel quite right. Veronica also continually violates Mick’s boundaries with regards to having her photo taken. Their relationship feels obsessive and sometimes angry, with Veronica pushing Mick’s limits, Mick retreating, and then Mick acting out her frustrations in other ways.
I did like that rather than being portrayed solely as a victim throughout the story (although her mother is certainly abusive) Mick is much more complex. She’s a good person caught in a terrible situation and when it becomes too much for her, she behaves in ways that aren’t always safe or smart:
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In one example she sets a fire as part of one of Nico’s art installations that could have hurt or killed someone.
This felt like a pretty accurate representation of a young person struggling through giant upheavals who hadn’t developed the right tools to deal with them.
I struggled more with Veronica and Nico’s characters. Veronica gets so caught up in her fame after Mick’s photo went viral that she feels narcissistic and selfish, especially considering that her girlfriend is facing homelessness and parental abandonment, and all she’s asking is that her photo not be published. While I understand that Veronica is also young and possibly not making mature choices, they felt harder for me to accept because of how clearly Mick states her boundaries and because Veronica can see the physical and mental toll the photography has on Mick. Mick’s anxiety is so bad that seeing the images of herself makes her physically ill.
Nico, meanwhile, continues to escalate as the book progresses, first from a quirky artist to eventually someone whose “installations” are deadly. Veronica and Mick don’t realize how dangerous Nico is, and how willing he is to manipulate them, until they are already in jeopardy.
The problem is that the novel starts off as an obsessive, fever-dreamy love affair between two teenagers, but ends like a comic book villain origin story. The thriller elements are present in the beginning of the book, but much more heavily weighted toward the end. By the time people are murdered and the thriller plotline really gains momentum, I was already very invested in the plotlines surrounding Veronica and Mick’s relationship, and Mick’s issues at home. The narrative seemed to press pause on the latter two and expected me to accept that they would be resolved after the imminent danger was taken care of. It felt abrupt and the three plotlines weren’t really woven together.
There are also a lot of different tensions to manage. Mick’s home situation and her sometimes troubled relationship with Veronica is plenty of conflict for a novel alone. A queer teen demanding agency over her body and dealing with homelessness and parental abandonment because of it is A LOT. The thriller aspect of the novel distracted from the other parts, and frankly I felt more fear and tension at Mick’s personal situation than I did at art/terrorism/thriller angle. It was too much and it unbalanced the book. In the end I found the resolution to Mick’s personal situation and her romance with Veronica more satisfying, while I was strictly “meh” about the Nico plotline. I would have enjoyed this more as just a romance.