Cammie, the chaotic force at the core of Zoe Whittall’s fifth novel, The Fake, can charm anyone. Even you, dear reader. “You’re a smart person, obviously,” she writes in an introduction. “You read books.”
Much like the infatuated protagonists who fall for Cammie, it’s easy to get obsessed with this compelling read-in-a-weekend page-turner. Parallel tales are told by Gibson, freshly heartbroken at the edge of 40, who is swept into a wild affair with 29-year-old Cammie, and Shelby, a 32-year-old widow who is befriended by the effervescent cool girl at her grief group.
Cammie is high-spirited despite carrying some heavy baggage. Both her best friend and her sister died, and she’ll candidly confide that she is in remission from kidney cancer.
It’s clear from the start that Cammie’s about to take our sheltered narrators on a wild ride. When we first meet Shelby in a flash-forward, she’s hiding in her closet from a suspected intruder. When Gibson hastily falls in “movie love” with Cammie, Whittall writes, “Later a therapist will call this a red flag.” In a game of two truths and a lie, Cammie tells Gibson’s friends that she sang on the Arcade Fire song “Reflektor,” but can’t quite satisfy everyone’s questions about the brush with stardom.
Cammie might be too good to believe, but the way she quickly embeds herself into Shelby and Gibson’s lives is realistic enough to read as a cautionary tale.
Shelby is singularly focused on her grief after the death of her wife until her new bond with Cammie gives her permission to re-engage with the world. After all, a new friend has “no expectation that you’ll return to who you once were.”
Gibson has just ended a stable if not especially spicy relationship with his long-term partner Leda when Cammie sparks a kind of stupid infatuation in him. They seem to share this overheated obsession. Stealing Gibson’s deodorant, Cammie says, “I want to smell like you all day and get turned on by it.” The concern from Gibson’s friends barely permeates their cozy love bubble.
The plot zips along, peppered by Whittall’s sharp and quirky voice. Funny, pop-culturally literate references can suggest a lightness, such as Whittall’s description of Shelby’s type as “women who look like John Goodman or Pete Davidson, skater boys or baseball prodigies.” But as propulsive as The Fake is, Whittall serves damning satire beneath that smooth surface.
Trust, who deserves it and under what criteria, is the central focus, and readers’ own abilities to spot a lie will be tested. As Gibson transitions into a paranoid amateur detective to reassure himself that Cammie is indeed who she claims to be, Whittall writes, “He believed her because to not believe her means something is wrong about how they seem to exist in space so beautifully together.”
Whittall’s observations can be uncomfortably accurate, and readers might find themselves lifting their suspicious eyes from the characters on the page to the people in their own lives. By the end, Cammie endures as a complicated, fascinating anti-hero who’d fit right in among Gillian Flynn’s rogues’ gallery.