A glitzy, frenetic look at New York’s social elite and the toxic friendship that throttles its protagonist into the throes of everything she’s wanted, for a heady price.
Sometimes, having it all—fame, money and love—hinges on keeping a ticking time bomb of a secret that threatens to expose the person behind the lie. Enter Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, a glitzy, frenetic look at New York’s social elite and the toxic friendship that throttles its protagonist into the throes of everything she’s wanted, for a heady price.
In a whirlwind 278 pages, Louise goes from broke millennial nobody to financially-backed “Five Under 30” literati after Lavinia adopts her as her best friend. Her material and monetary blessings, invitations to exclusive events and fawning attention, however, quickly turn manipulative, guilting Louise into compliance regardless of whether she has the time or funds to entertain Lavinia and her grandiose whims. Any time Louise is away too long or shows interest in anything the other woman disapproves of—chiefly Rex, the ex that Lavinia loathes and pines for—she’s accused of ungratefulness and betrayal. When Louise’s transgressions pit them against each other, the fight ends in a freak accident, plucking her out of one bad situation and plopping her into another. How to deal with a dead socialite when her absence would stir suspicion among her family, friends and netizen followers?
Social Creature is engrossing in spite of or maybe because of its characters turning out seedier than they present themselves. Louise herself deceives their social circle, in real life and online, into believing that Lavinia’s moved on to find herself, and she steals from her bank account to pretend the other woman is still alive. Rex won’t stand up to his arrogant, chauvinist best friend and dates Louise while still loving Lavinia. Their acquaintances extort each other for money, notoriety and sex. Everyone has their means to their self-serving ends, and that rather than camaraderie keeps them together.
The pace hits interval lulls as Louise grows bored and trapped in the new reality and ascent up the literary scene that Lavinia influenced. Even when the story stales and the characters sour, Louise and Lavinia’s insecurities ring engagingly true. Lavinia wanted the world to acknowledge her larger than life personality and philosophy and to have someone by her side. Louise just wants to be seen for herself and succeed as a writer. The reader can understand and sympathize with their need for validation.
Though Burton does well in depicting her character’s motivations and their clique’s inner machinations, she weakens various story developments’ impact by interjecting into Louise’s third-person point of view with a jarring “we” or “you” addressing the audience, or overstating what’s contextually obvious. Some variation of “here’s the thing” prefaces, for example, instances Louise wants to believe Lavinia cares about her despite her selfish actions. Burton repeats the phrase ad nauseum and over-explains to belittling effect, as if she doesn’t trust readers to deduce what’s happening. This bluntness robs us of an organic narrative experience because she flat-out tells us when Louise is lying to appease someone or feels unsure about her situation. Lavinia’s death isn’t surprising because it’s been mentioned as early as the back of the book synopsis, and expository paragraphs harp on what supposedly makes it so significantly momentous. If it were revealed in real time, Lavinia’s fate would have shocked the audience and Louise’s panic, desperation and on-the-fly decision to cover it up would feel more palpable.
Though Burton’s Word of God interruptions drops on audiences like an anvil, her implementation of social media is pinpoint accurate about people policing their public personas, and this lets the story unfold naturally. Lavinia obsesses over snapping, editing and captioning the perfect picture for Instagram, and Louise imitates her posthumously with relevant stock photos and vaguely insightful quotes. The previous bestie Lavinia exiled connects with Louise via emoji-laden messaging, which leads to her spilling incriminating secrets about their absent mutual friend. Because they bond in part over text, Rex pinging Louise and stoking the argument that precipitates Lavinia’s demise is plausible despite convenient timing.
Depending how one thinks of Louise as the story plays out, there’s reason to applaud her quick scheming or to complain she didn’t get her comeuppance. In the end, Social Creature is an entertaining, pulpy novel with relatable if not likeable characters and keen observations. But here’s the thing: maybe the narrative punch would’ve been a knockout if Burton didn’t write redundant spoilers into her own book and instead let literary subtlety speak for itself.