What do you do when you encounter a homeless person? Most people have one of two responses: either avert their eyes and move away, or give the person a dollar, sometimes more, hoping to alleviate their suffering but knowing a few dollars here and there probably won't. Heidi Wood, the kindhearted protagonist of Mary Kubica's "Pretty Baby," does something more direct, and with far-reaching repercussions.
It's April in Chicago, and the Windy City is experiencing record rainfalls. On Heidi's walk to the elevated train platform, she consistently sees a teenage girl dressed in torn jeans and an army green nylon coat, barely managing her vintage suitcase and a writhing, distraught infant. Heidi lingers, "wanting to do something, but not wanting to seem intrusive or offensive. There's a fine line between helpful and disrespectful, one which I don't want to cross." While Heidi's job at a nonprofit literacy agency has sensitized her to the faces behind the poverty statistics, her husband, Chris, an investment banker whose affection for Heidi has become "more a force of habit than something sweet," considers her a bleeding heart and cringes at the words "immigrant" and "refugee," convinced she cares more for the plight of the have-nots than her own husband.
Through the early chapters written from Heidi and Chris' points of view, one senses a pall has settled over the Wood family that leaves 12-year-old daughter Zoe sullen and makes Heidi imagine she's seeing her dead father in the commuting crowds. Meanwhile, Chris doubles down on his work, driven by his deeply ingrained need for "money, money, money," and tries to avoid the temptation presented by business trips with Cassidy Knudsen, a lithe, young co-worker whose interest in Chris' spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations is fraught with sexual tension.
When Heidi hears that baby's wail near the el station again, "the sound grabs me by the throat," and before you can say "bad idea," she has invited the teenager, Willow Greer, and baby Ruby to join her for dinner at a nearby diner.
Kubica (whose first novel, the well-received "Good Girl," also uses multiple points of view and time frames) ratchets up the suspense here by introducing Willow's point of view, beginning with a hostile interview with a social worker some days after that fateful dinner. But instead of the torn jeans and thin coat, Willow's wearing an orange jumpsuit, leaving readers to wonder what happened to bring her to this distressing turn of events. The answers seem to come at an agonizingly slow pace, but in actuality are the mark of Kubica's skill at plotting and character development, which belie that "Pretty Baby" is only her second novel.
At the diner, Heidi reflects on how a decade before, she and Chris had aborted a fetus early in the first trimester when Heidi underwent a hysterectomy to combat cervical cancer. The pain of that loss lingers — one of many revelations that Kubica masterfully juggles as Heidi ushers Willow and Ruby into her home, an act that disgusts and alarms her husband and daughter and sets in motion a bigger set of problems for them all.
Willow brings to the Woods' home baggage beyond the vintage suitcase she clings to as tightly as baby Ruby. Without revealing too much, Willow's back story illuminates the consequences of a foster care system more concerned with achieving metrics and quotas than doing the right thing by the children it purports to serve. After so much neglect and abuse, Willow recognizes in Heidi the first person to be kind to her in years. But are Willow's feelings simply gratitude, and Heidi's mere kindness, or is something more complex at play between them?
Foster care, homelessness, the limits of altruism, the little lies and betrayals of midlife marriage, the consequence of unexamined grief all unspool over several intense days as Heidi becomes more absorbed by Willow and Ruby, and Chris and Zoe seek solace away from home. Yet, as the suspense mounts, Kubica never resorts to stereotypes or easy fixes for people who are battered and broken by circumstances beyond their control, symbolized by a wedding photo Chris has thumbtacked to a bulletin board after the frame broke: "Our protective glass frame shattered and now here we were, punctured with microscopic holes that might one day tear. Those holes all had names: mortgage, adolescent child, lack of communication, retirement savings, cancer."
It is rare that a novel of what has come to be called domestic suspense is thrilling and illuminating, but "Pretty Baby" manages to be both without overtly showing the hard work that has gone into striking the right balance. In doing so, it raises the ante on the genre and announces the welcome second coming of a talent well worth watching.
Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has written four mysteries and has edited several anthologies.
Mira/Harlequin: 371 pages; $24.95