While preparing for a ‘spring books to watch’ segment on my monthly radio appearance, I chose The Fake by Zoe Whittall for two reasons; one, I keep seeing it mentioned everywhere, so obviously the publisher has been successful in creating ‘buzz’. Secondly, it’s a work of fiction about a con-artist, which is always a fun topic (that is, unless you’ve been conned yourself, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of this book). I’ve never found myself a victim of a scam (knock on wood) so I thought this would be a unique and entertaining read for me, and I was delighted to learn my instincts were correct; I raced through its 192 pages.
The book begins and ends with a short note from “Cammie”: a young woman who has clearly had a difficult life, and doesn’t mind taking ‘what is hers’ to make up for it. We then meet Gibson; a man on the cusp of 40, just coming out of a painful divorce. Sensitive, depressed, and desperate for companionship, he’s overjoyed when an attractive woman approaches him at a bar. Cammie is sexy, wild, and ready to live in the moment, pushing him to limits he never imagined with his ex-wife, who is now a distant memory. His friends warn him about falling too fast, and when Cammie’s stories begin to seem a little farfetched, he realizes his mistake. Shelby is grieving the death of her wife, and struggling to leave the house, her anxiety disorder pushed into overdrive while she mourns. But at a grief counselling group, Shelby meets Cammie, a young woman mourning the death of her sister, and exceptionally supportive of Shelby’s panic and depression. Shelby slowly emerges from her depression through Cammie’s kindness and zest for life, but when she meets Cammie’s boyfriend Gibson, it becomes clear that they are falling for very different people.
This book fulfills a morbid curiosity in many of us; how do pathological liars do it? How do they live with themselves and the people they lie to, and more importantly, why do people keep falling for it? Whittall explores the fallout of Cammie’s two relationships with Shelby and Gibson, but because we only get a few pages from Cammie’s perspective, the focus remains on her ‘marks’, and how they allowed themselves to become wrapped up in this web of lies. Despite not knowing the true intentions behind Cammie’s manipulations, she remains a sympathetic character alongside Shelby and Gibson, which makes this writing all the more impressive. It’s easy to imagine her as the villain, but like Shelby’s obsessive googling, it prompts the reader to question what motivates a person to act like this in the first place. Although the plot is propulsive and unique, this book remains a character-study at its heart, which is one of the reasons I loved it.
Another reason I enjoyed this book was that it so distinctly describes the time of life I currently find myself in; late 30s quickly careening towards 40. It’s a stage that feels stuck between a few things; some friends are married, some are not, some have kids, some don’t, some are still living as if they are 20, some are living as if they’re 60. Both Shelby and Gibson are attracted to Cammie because of her youth; not only is she younger, but she acts much younger too. Cammie represents a youthfulness that both Shelby and Gibson have missed. They both love, and resent this aspect to Cammie’s personality:
“Trust me. If this were a chapter in your memoir, wouldn’t future you want now you to go?
Shelby sighs. She wishes she were still in her twenties when thoughts like that were inspiring.”-p. 47 of The Fake by Zoe Whittall, ARC edition
Feeling old and tired beyond your years is made significantly easier when you can laugh about it, which this book certainly did for me.
The writing enhanced the story by offering funny quips like the one above, along with painfully honest observations by each character. They are ashamed of themselves; how easily they fall for Cammie, how much they hate their present situations, and how painful it is to realize the Cammie they made up in their heads doesn’t really exist. Instead of this book being about the scammer, it’s about the scammed, which is much more interesting to read about anyway.