Friday, 12 September 2014
Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach
Leila is a young woman who lives on the fringes of society. As a teenager she did not understand her peers let alone conform to their ideals. She finds popular culture baffling. As a result, she is considered a freak in their eyes and was bullied. The one friend she had moved away and the only family member close to her, her mother, died recently of a debilitating illness. She is a loner who spends most of her time in her flat on her computer. When she is not doing her computer-based job from home she is playing World of Warcraft or scouring the internet for websites that interest her. She discovers Red Pill; a website with what appears to be like-minded people who share philosophical ideas run by Adrian. Adrian is a charismatic leader who has a certain amount of control and power over the site users. Leila's participation on the site starts to gain her respect and admiration by other users and she is invited to become part of an elite group on the site that take part in intellectual discussions. Adrian soon becomes impressed with Leila's contributions to the group and he starts sending her direct messages. After some time Adrian asks for a face to face meeting with Leila and she agrees. They meet in a public place, a park in North London, and he offers her a job. It is a unique project which involves taking over the online persona of another woman who wants to 'check out'. In this way, when she disappears her friends and family will be none-the-wiser that she is no longer around. Leila agrees to take on the project and is put in contact with Tess, the woman who she is to impersonate.
Leila begins working with Tess, learning all there is to know about her life in order to impersonate her. In doing so, the two women get to know each other and develop a (strange) relationship. Tess is very different from Leila. She is attractive to others, has many friends and is well cared about by the people close to her. Now in her early 40s, she has had a very eventful life and there is much for Leila to learn.
The 'project' starts when Tess 'checks out' - telling her friends and family that she is moving to a remote island off the coast of Canada. Leila takes on Tess' virtual life and discovers that the project is far more complicated to manage than she could have imagined. She also hadn't anticipated the effect that Tessa no longer being around has on her. In time, she also learns that there are things about Adrian, his relationship with Tess and the Red Pill site that could land her in serious trouble...
This book came out last year and was nominated for the Guardian first book award - and I can see why. For me, Lottie Moggach shows the kind of imagination that any writer/aspiring writer would envy - I certainly do. I wonder if I could ever come up with such a brilliant premise for a novel - sadly I doubt it.
I love an underdog and am drawn to characters who are misfits [I'll even get behind the 'poor little rich boy/girl' if (s)he is being oppressed]. That said, Leila isn't necessarily easy to love. This is because she makes a series of unwise choices - the kind that will have many readers rolling their eyes. It is difficult to see someone as a victim when their misfortune is self-inflicted. However, her unwise choices result from her naivity and this is her saving grace. As I progressed with the story Leila grew on me more and more and I came to the conclusion that the 3 major events that occur in her story (associated with her mother, Tess and Connor) have something in common. They are all the result of unconscious acts of kindness on Leila's part (all be they extreme, unethical and not without risk to herself) and THAT is what makes her loveable. This also suggests to me that, although she is literally disconnected from the real world, she is not emotionally disconnected from people - so there is hope.
I believe most people would consider Leila's choice to take on this project as an indication that something is not quite right with her psychologically, but her back story and her character makes it understandable. I found the premise highly plausible and the characters realistic.
I liked seeing the world through Leila's eyes. Her description of her peers demonstrates how perceptive the author is to the shallow and vacuous side of social networking. As you can imagine, it is somewhat anti 'the beautiful people' and I suspect those who consider themselves 'too cool for school' aren't going to like this book at all. I admit it has a melancholic undertone running through it but it isn't bleak like JKR's The Casual Vacancy or Lionel Shriver's Big Brother because it is hopeful and, in the end, has an uplifting feel to it.
I probably would not recommend this book to others because it really is a matter of personal taste - and if you hate it you won't thank me. Let me put it this way: if you like watching the TV show 'The Voice' but cannot tolerate 'The X Factor' you're more likely to be fine with it than if your TV-viewing preference is the other way around ; )
I will conclude by saying Kiss Me First is one of my favourite reads for 2014 and one I intend to revisit.