62 pages 2 hours read

Janelle Brown

Pretty Things

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Janelle Brown is the author of the 2020 mystery thriller Pretty Things. A best-selling author, Brown worked for influential websites in the 1990s, and, in Pretty Things, she examines how social media and the internet connects to grifting and can manipulate people and the truth.

The study guide refers to an eBook version of the 2020 Random House edition.

Content warning: The book and this guide contain discussions of death by suicide, drug use, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, and stigmatizing language about mental health.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with a graphic description of a dead body that sinks into the depths of Lake Tahoe and does not return to the surface.

The story shifts to a seemingly unrelated scene, and an unnamed narrator takes the reader into a glamorous Los Angeles nightclub where people snap photos of themselves and post them on social media. The people are the eponymous “pretty things,” and the narrator spotlights a woman who seduces the son of a Russian oligarch. She drugs him, drives him back to his mansion and, with the help of her partner and boyfriend, Lachlan O’Malley, robs him.

It materializes that the narrator and the mercenary woman are the same person: Nina Ross. Nina chooses her targets by following their social media. Their posts show her what they have and where they are, and Nina uses the money from grifting to pay for her mom’s expensive cancer treatment. Nina’s mom, Lily, was a grifter, and Nina lives with her in an East Los Angeles bungalow.

With the cops looking for her and Lily’s escalating medical bills, Nina and Lachlan pull a grift in Tahoe. With the assistance of the internet, Nina poses as a yoga instructor, Ashley Smith, and Lachlan poses as a professor and writer, Michael O’Brien. They intend to con a woman named Vanessa Liebling and steal the $1 million in the safe at her family estate, Stonehaven. Later, they plan to steal other valuables.

The Liebling family made a fortune in real estate and helped to build California. As a teenager, Nina lived near Tahoe. Her mom moved her there so that she could attend a prestigious high school and have a better life. Nina became close with Vanessa’s brother, Benny—an outcast with mental health conditions. One day, Vanessa’s domineering dad caught Nina and Benny having sex and forced Nina and her mom to leave. Instead of a better life, Nina went to a non-prestigious college and got a degree in art history.

After struggling at Princeton and a string of bad investments, Vanessa became a social media influencer. She traveled the world and posted pictures of her entrancing life on Instagram. Since her fiancé dumped her, her mom died by suicide, and her dad died, Vanessa needs a new narrative. She returns to the foreboding family estate in Tahoe, Stonehaven, and rents the caretaker’s cottage out to tenants so that she is not alone.

Nina and Lachlan (posing as Ashley and Michael) rent the cottage and trick Vanessa into thinking that they are friends. Vanessa confides in Nina/Ashley about her tragic family history, and Nina starts to see Vanessa as a human—not a pretty thing on social media and not a villainous member of the elitist family that wrecked her life. Lachlan detects Nina’s emotions and tells her to toughen up. They plant cameras throughout Stonehaven and locate the safe. When Nina opens it, there is no money inside, but there is a letter from Lily. Nina’s mom had an affair with Vanessa’s dad and tried to blackmail him for $500,000.

Nina rushes home to confront her mom. Due to a comment from her brother on an Instagram post of which Nina/Ashley was unaware, Vanessa discovers that Ashley is Nina. Vanessa also discovers her own mom’s diaries in which her mom links her decision to die by suicide to her husband’s affair with Lily. Vanessa wants to ruin Nina’s life. To do this, she tells Michael/Lachlan that Ashley is Nina—she does not think Michael/Lachlan is a part of the con—and marries him. However, Vanessa does not tell him that she is pregnant or that most of her money is gone. She tells Benny about her impulsive marriage, and he questions her choice. Benny’s doubt prompts Vanessa to investigate Michael/Lachlan, and question marks pop up all over the place.

Back in East Los Angeles, Lily confesses to the affair with Vanessa’s dad and to being present when he found Benny and Nina having sex. Nina realizes that Vanessa does not deserve to be a target and vows to call off the grift. Before she can, the police arrest her. Lachlan tipped off the cops, but Vanessa, looking for answers about Michael/Lachlan, posts Nina’s bail. They search Lachlan’s apartment and learn that he cons women and has lots of money.

Together, Nina and Vanessa trick Michael/Lachlan. Back at Stonehaven, they make Michael/Lachlan believe that Nina and Vanessa are foes and lead him to the yacht where Vanessa’s mom drowned herself. Nina has a gun, and they threaten to turn him over to the cops if he does not vanish. Lachlan agrees to disappear, but he gets Nina’s gun and fires it at her. There are no bullets, and Vanessa kills him by hitting him on the head with an oar. They toss his body into Lake Tahoe.

Vanessa uses Lachlan’s money to hire an expensive lawyer for Nina. She gets a light sentence and rejoins Vanessa and Vanessa’s daughter at Stonehaven. Vanessa hires Nina to catalog the sundry objects in Stonehaven, and Nina and Benny live with Vanessa and her daughter and create a family. Vanessa becomes a mommy blogger, but social media does not rule her life—it is a practical job to pay the bills.

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