What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.
Lavinia lives the kind of open, expansive life that you can only manage when you’re fabulously wealthy. She originally finds Louise when she’s looking for a SAT tutor to coach her little sister during the Christmas holidays; but, before long, Louise finds herself being tugged off to incredible parties, Met opera galas and expensive bars, tasting all the glitz of New York that she’s always dreamed of and never seen. There’s something addictive about Lavinia’s friendship – her wild charisma, and the satisfaction of knowing that everyone on Facebook can see you at her side, sharing her adventures – and that allure continues even as Louise begins to realise exactly how wearing Lavinia herself is to cope with. But Louise is desperate to prove herself a success – or at least, not to keep failing as dismally as she’s done so far – and living rent-free with her brand new BFF in a brownstone apartment in the best part of town certainly feels successful.
There’s just one problem. As we know, virtually from the start of the novel, Lavinia’s going to die soon; oh, in about six months. Burton keeps the tension singing as time begins to run out, as we wonder not so much who’ll do it, but how and when and why, and whether the consequences will come knocking. It’s a tantalising blend of The Talented Mr Ripley, the unsettling new social-media thriller Ingrid Goes West, and perhaps even a dash of Brideshead Revisited, if we think of the unequal relationship between a golden, brilliant, troubled young person and their more modest friend, who is reeled in by their dangerous allure. (I wondered if Lavinia’s sister had been named Cordelia in tribute to Waugh’s masterpiece.) And everything is spiced by the central role of social media. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the technology we use to catalogue our lives and movements in more detail than ever before can also be used to add false trails, to obfuscate and mislead and – yes – even lie?
This is Burton’s debut novel and, as such, it packs a hefty and confident punch. She’s an experienced journalist and writer of short fiction (much of it published in New York journals) and it’s tantalising to wonder exactly how much research she felt compelled to do into the fabulous hot-spots where her heroines hang out. Some people have all the fun… But she’s also an intellectual force to be reckoned with, having just finished a PhD in theology at Oxford as a Clarendon Scholar. Apparently her next book won’t be the expected follow-up thriller, but something totally different: a sociological investigation of the way religion has been replaced in the modern world, titled Strange Rites: Cults and Subcultures After the Death of God. One to watch, I think. It looks as though Burton isn’t going to be content with the usual career of a debut novelist… and all credit to her.
I’ll be keen to hear what other people think of Social Creature. It does perhaps stretch credibility a little too much at times, but no more so than something like Friend Request, another thriller which gives social media a starring role. It’s interesting to see how easily our online lives lend themselves to this kind of sobering story. Has anyone come across any other thrillers based around this increasingly dominant aspect of modern life?