book review: social creature

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
Doubleday, 320 pp.
Published June 5, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes. This in no way informed or influenced my opinion.
They go through both bottles of champagne right there on the High Line, with nothing but the stars over them... They drink and Lavinia tells Louise about all the places they will go together, when they finish their stories, when they are both great writers-to Paris and to Rome and to Trieste...

Lavinia will never go. She is going to die soon.

Louise has nothing. Lavinia has everything. After a chance encounter, the two spiral into an intimate, intense, and possibly toxic friendship. A Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age, this seductive story takes a classic tale of obsession and makes it irresistibly new.

Reading Social Creature is like getting dropped into the middle of a manic, rich girl's Instagram, a common theme of overindulgent decadence the only uniting factor. Lavinia and Louise move through a cast of characters that behave as though they too graduated from Donna Tartt's Hampden College, their entitled circle as at home at a costume party in an abandoned warehouse as they are at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera. Lavinia's life of bottomless bank accounts, disposable designer clothes, and wide open days for whatever amusements she desires captivates with its unnaturalness. You don't quite believe that her existence—the one she shares with and uses to manipulate Louise—could be real, even as a part of you wants to join in the fun.

Lavinia encapsulates the "poor little rich girl" stereotype, yet as the novel unfolds her mood swings and guilt trips read less as undesirable character traits and more as symptoms of a deeper problem. Her manipulative tactics trigger warning bells from the start; Louise appears so susceptible, so hungry for the fantasy life dreamed of when she first moved to New York that she makes easy prey for the lonely heiress. Yet as secrets begin piling up between the two women and the power dynamics shift because of them, the question of who is taking advantage of whom enters into play.

One may wonder why Louise doesn't take one of her available escape routes from Lavinia's emotional exploitation. The lure of wealth and exclusivity is a powerful one, despite the risks to Louise's independence. At first, when she starts skimming funds off the top of her friend's bloated checking account, Louise almost seems justified. But one person's obliviousness does not excuse another deliberately taking advantage, and by the time the women's relationship has descended into a self-sustaining mutual toxicity, it's impossible to excuse the actions of either of them.

Burton deploys a squirmy mix of condescension and desperate adoration towards the idle rich that populate Social Creature. Told through Louise's outsider perspective, the lifestyle of well-funded unemployment, heavy drinking, and an endless string of unhinged parties takes on a hallucinogenic patina. Burton's prose continues the dream-like sensation, simultaneously casting Louise as a grounded every(wo)man and a victim of the same rot at the center of her patrician friends.

The cover copy may reveal one major development in Social Creature, but readers shouldn't fret over a lack of surprises after Lavinia departs the narrative. The circumstances of her death force Louise into an increasingly paranoid spiral that refocuses the hectic energy of raves and all-night benders into a gradual psychotic break. In this way Social Creature works well as a portrait of toxic female friendship and the ways in which a desperate need to belong can corrupt even the well-intentioned beyond repair.


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