I’ve been on a road trip for the last week, but before I left I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (which sounded a bit like The Great Gatsby meets modern thriller, so of course I was on board for an untamed extravaganza). Before I left I made notes for a review, but at no point during my trip did I have time to round it out. Now that I’m back (I’ll do an overview of the sights we saw and the books I bought tomorrow), and now that I’ve slept, I’m ready to review and return to real life.
About the book: Lavinia and Louise meet when Louise is hired to tutor Lavinia’s sister in preparation for her SATs. Lavinia’s sister does not need Louise, but Lavinia does. Lavinia is on the search for a new best friend, and pulls Louise along to elaborate New York parties, expensive bars, and prestigious social events. It is so different from Louise’s old life of responsibility and loneliness that she can’t let it go. Louise becomes more and more like Lavinia in appearance and behavior, but there’s a moment when it becomes clear that no matter their similarities outwardly, Lavinia is the one with the money and the power to keep Louise afloat, or take her new social life away. This moment ends with Lavinia’s death, which leaves Louise with secret power like a ticking bomb.
(This is not a spoiler. The narrator announces right off the bat that Louise and Lavinia’s friendship will culminate in a fatal end.)
“Now is the part you’ve been waiting for. You and I both know what happens now: Lavinia doesn’t make it. But the thing you have to understand is: why. Now you and I, we’ve been to parties before. We’ve done this a few times before already. But here’s the thing: you’ve never been to a party like this. That’s the whole point.”
Everyone has had a friend who’s “too much,” haven’t they? Lavinia is that friend. She’s over the top in good ways, in bad ways, in ways she’ll admit and ways she won’t. She’s the focal point of any room she enters. She’s utterly unique, and Louise is unique, but there’s something inherently relatable in this friendship-of-a-lifetime.
There were a few things I didn’t like about Burton’s writing, including the way dialogue is presented, which is sometimes clunky and makes it hard to tell who’s talking at times. Also the spaces between paragraphs occasionally make it difficult to tell how much time has passed; the gaps between paragraphs is visually pleasing, but rather unhelpful in conveying chronology.
But there were also several things I particularly liked about the writing style. Burton uses a narrator who knows what is going to happen, and who is willing to address the reader directly. This makes for a comfortably informal style of storytelling that drew me in as easily as my friends do when they have crazy stories to share.
On the surface these seem like very shallow and predictable people; they fit a type. But the more time the reader spends with them, the more distinct and surprising they become. Each of these characters has a secret history, and when the skeletons come out of their closets all manner of chaos breaks out.
“You can dye your hair. You can learn to speak with a very charming mid-Atlantic accent. You can stay up until four in the morning, missing your own deadlines, just to read somebody’s novel and tell them how great it is. But nothing, nothing you do will ever be enough. Even if somebody loves you (or they think they do, or they say they do), it’ll just be because you remind them of someone else, or because you make them feel a little less bad about having lost somebody else, or because somebody else is watching, across the auditorium, in an opera box, and they just want to make them jealous, and you were just an accessory to this.”
The most interesting part of this book, in my opinion, is the second half, when Louise flourishes and flounders after Lavinia dies. There are some interesting parallels where it seems Louise is becoming Lavinia, and their lives fuse into one being. Louise’s actions after Lavinia’s death are completely bizarre and engrossing, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. Surely the murderer is not going to get away with this crime, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a slip-up and the truth comes out. But when? But how? These are the questions that kept me awake at night until I finished reading this book.
The only thing I would’ve changed about Social Creature is the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, of course. The thing is, the reader knows right away that Lavinia is going to die. And as soon as she does, the reader also knows, based on how it happens, that the truth about her death can’t possibly stay hidden. But in the end, it’s not a confrontation that ends things, but a confession. An unnecessary (at that moment, anyway) confession, given to someone who has no inkling of it and doesn’t even want to believe. If there’s meaning to the way it plays out, I missed it. I like an ambiguous end, but this one could go absolutely anywhere– it’s so vague that I can’t even imagine what happens next. I don’t even know what Louise wants to happen next, though I spent nearly 300 pages getting to know her. It seemed an arbitrary place to draw the end of the story, after everything Louise had been through.
But I devoured it nonetheless. An ending can make or break a book for me, but even though this one seemed disappointing I flew through the rest of the story and I would still recommend it to fans of the literary thriller.
“There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions intelligent people don’t ask.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Most of this book was a solid 4-star read for me; even though it’s slow at times and the parties become redundant fast, it’s highly entertaining and I was constantly wondering how things would turn out for Louise. There’s an artfulness to the compare and contrast of the girls’ lives that reveals Burton’s talent and gives the book its ominous tone. Some of my guesses were right, some were wrong, but it was a good balance. A great summer read.
Is there a certain type of book you prefer to read in summer?
The Literary Elephant