One could argue that admiration and jealousy between friends have existed since the beginning of time, but the burst of social media has exacerbated this phenomenon to new heights. Take Louise: an introvert, intelligent, beautiful 29-year-old who tutors students for their SAT’s and has no friends or social life, struggling to make ends meet. And then take a rich, pretty, well-educated, 23-year-old girl called Lavinia who is the very definition of a socialite, partying the glamorous New York nights away. And now try to imagine how this relationship could develop once the two of them become best friends.
Tara Isabella Burton’s book is firmly established in the alluring world of social media. The atmosphere evoking the fragrance of the night, the colours of Monet, the smell of champagne and whisky, but also Lavinia’s perfume (lavender, tobacco, fig, and pear), jazz music and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Liszt’s third Liebestraum.
And now the language: Direct, witty, precise, impressionistic, millennial. That’s how I’d describe Burton’s style. Like a handful of moonlit black pearls ready to be dropped on a shiny surface (perhaps glass, perhaps a mirror). Ingeniously, a third-person narrator appears every now and then to warn us about things: “Louise has never had one of those nights before. Don’t worry. She will.” or “Now is the part you’ve been waiting for.”
A great deal of the book’s descriptive style is reflected in Lavinia’s dialogue alone. Hers is the language of the great romantic poets, of the French bohemian artists who want to live life to its fullest. It’s no wonder that when Louise becomes the main character in the second part of the book, a lot of this extravagant, luscious flair is missing: Louise simply cannot substitute Lavinia’s joie de vivre, no matter how hard she tries.
I was surprised to read that some readers and reviewers thought of Lavinia as an empty, boring person, stupid even, despite the fact that a couple of times we get glimpses of her social perception: it seems Lavinia is also playing her role cleverly. But it is precisely that elusiveness of character that makes her an uncanny individual unable to be reproduced or impersonated.
SPOILERS for Social Creature in the next paragraph (you may skip it)
The transfiguration of Louise’s personality is not a transfiguration per se. What is remarkable is that traits of her sinful behaviour had been present all along, as we learn from brief flashbacks regarding her former relationship, so that when the actual sin is committed we can’t be sure whether her response is spontaneous or calculated. What she realises though, is that the form of punishment can be harsher than expected: she is not struck by lightning, which is what she thinks God usually does, but seems to get away with having committed various crimes. True, she might escape legal punishment but the guilt seems like a heavier burden.
END of spoilers
It’s not a coincidence that Tara Isabella Burton has a PhD in Theology at Oxford. She might have been influenced by her Episcopalian faith (as I read) which means her ideas are so subtly present in the book that do not propagate nor try to influence readers. On the contrary, the readers themselves are left to judge (or not) both Lavinia and Louise. One of the strengths of the novel is Burton’s cool, almost detached involvement in the psyche of its characters, which in the end has left so many readers baffled as to whether they are likeable or not (and for this, I’d like to point you to the author’s interesting article on Vox).
Some readers also seem to miss Burton’s sarcasm. Not only when she introduces the third person narrator, but also when Louise herself explains what is wrong with Lavinia’s writing: “It’s not just that it’s bad. It is bad—the prose is too purple and the sentences are too long and the literary allusions are too forced and every other line is a quotation or a character monologuing about the nature of Life and Art.”
Naturally, readers didn’t hesitate to classify this as a suspense or a thriller novel. I think the association with Patricia Highsmith’s books is much more successful and the comparison is not a hyperbole, even though the language is completely different. Social Creature is a piece of brave, original fiction that perhaps could set Tara Isabella Burton on the list of the contemporary American writers to watch.
Title: Social Creature
Author: Tara Isabella Burton
Published: Doubleday, 2018