You can’t fool them forever…
A Ripley story for the Instagram age set in contemporary New York; a world at once sophisticated and sordid, irresistible and irresponsible, unforgettable yet unattainable
Louise is struggling to survive in New York; juggling a series of poorly paid jobs, renting a shabby flat, being cat-called by her creepy neighbour, she dreams of being a writer. And then one day she meets Lavinia. Lavinia who has everything – looks, money, clothes, friends, an amazing apartment…
Lavinia invites Louise into her charmed circle, takes her to the best parties, bars, the opera, shares her clothes, her coke, her Uber account. Louise knows that this can’t last for ever, but just how far is she prepared to go to have this life? Or rather, to have Lavinia’s life?
Some books are like Marmite – you either love them or you hate them. A quick glance over the Goodreads reviews, or the comments on The Pigeonhole, of Tara Isabella Burton’s debut novel Social Creature makes it apparent that it is indeed one of those books. Which isn’t too surprising given that the novel borrows heavily in terms of tone and theme from both The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr Ripley – both of which could be considered Marmite books in and of themselves. What was surprising, to me at least, was that I absolutely loved Social Creature – which is in complete contrast to both Gatsby and Ripley which, alongside Marmite itself, are persona non grata in my household.
What really chimed for me in Social Creature, more so that in Fitzgerald’s jazz age classic and Highsmith’s modern thriller, were the characters. Blandly average twenty-something Louise is, at the start of the novel, juggling several jobs in order to pay for her horrid bedsit in a dodgy area of New York. Failing to make is as a writer, she spends her days wishing for a boyfriend, a decent job, and some inspiration. She’s an ‘every girl’ and it’s easy to empathise with her desire to get away from home and make her life in the city, no matter how awful a life that’s turning out to be.
When Louise meets effervescent young socialite Lavinia, it’s like two world’s colliding. Lavinia has it all – a swanky apartment in central Manhattan, outfits for every occasion, and so much money that she barely knows how to spend it. And Louise is sucked in. We, the readers, are sucked in. The glitz, the glamour, the parties, the money, the hundreds of selfies, the general adoration of the crowd. The ‘it-girl’ scene of early 2000’s New York is vividly described, from the sleazy parties in underground clubs to the boozy literary salons at galleries, Burton ensures that the reader is along for one wild ride as bland Louise is introduced into Lavinia’s intoxicating world. But the trouble with intoxication is that you stop thinking straight. And when Louise stops thinking straight, everything heads south very, very quickly.
Without wishing to give any spoilers, there’s a real sting in Louise and Lavinia’s toxic tale. If you’re familiar with Gatsby and Ripley, it probably won’t be too much of a shocker, but Social Creature manages an extremely clever twist on the well-worn formula that makes the book into a cautionary tale for the social media age. Because social media and online communications are everywhere in this novel – from the selfies that Lavinia and Louise post each night, to the constant messaging and the importance of Facebook ‘friends’, the book hinges on the artifice of our online personas – and the shaky foundations, secrets and lies that can be hidden behind those pretty posts. It’s a fresh angle on a well-worn tale and it really worked for me.
I do also adore a novel with an unreliable narrator and Louise is about as unreliable as they come. From the off we know that she is lying to Lavinia and it isn’t long before we come to realise that she’s lying to herself. So how long before she’s lying to the reader as well? Like the poisonous Barbara in Zoe Heller’s brilliant Notes on a Scandal, Louise is always able to justify her actions and it makes for delicious, if uncomfortable reading.
There is nothing truly original in Social Creature – the shades of Gatsby and Ripley linger throughout – but as a cautionary tale for the modern era, the book is sleek and well-crafted. Watching Louise and Lavinia entangle themselves in the ever-more complex webs that they weave is like watching a car crash in slow motion as these vapid, horrible people do increasingly awful and manipulative things to each other in an effort to preserve or improve their social standing. But, like an episode of Love Island, it’s difficult to tear yourself away – there’s a compulsion to watching the madness unfold, which is aided by short, snappy chapters that frequently finish with teasers or cliff-hangers.
Overall, I can see why some readers didn’t gel with Social Creature – all of the characters are truly horrid and the portrayal of the New York party scene is about as vulgar as you’d expect. But for me, the modern trappings added a unique contemporary shine to the well-worn tale, the characters felt unpleasantly real and I was unable to divert my attention from the mayhem unfolding on the page. I came out of it breathless, but Social Creature was an intoxicating ride.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. I read the book for free on The Pigeonhole; the online book club in your pocket, so my thanks go to them for giving me the opportunity to read along and provide an honest and unbiased review.