Kiss Me First (4 July 2013) by Lottie Moggach
Leila is a young woman in her early twenties who has led something of a sheltered life, devoted to caring for her beloved mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Shortly after the two of them buy a (rather disgusting and run-down) flat as an investment for Leila's future, her mother passes away, and Leila retreats into an isolated and self-contained existence, with most of her time spent online. At first she works from home, testing software, and plays games, but a remark from an internet acquaintance leads her to join an elite forum called Red Pill. Drawn into the philosophical debates constantly carried out by its members, Leila begins abandoning her other responsibilities and devoting all her time to posting there, particularly when she is singled out by the site's charismatic leader, Adrian, for special praise. It's shortly after this that Adrian asks Leila to help him with a secret project - one that will require her to imitate a complete stranger, Tess, online. Tess is everything, both good and bad, that Leila is not: outspoken, sexy, popular, scatty, unreliable and fickle, with countless friends and more life experience than Leila has ever dreamed of. But there are sinister reasons behind the scheme, and that explains why the story opens with Leila searching for evidence of Tess in a Spanish commune, trying to determine whether she is still alive.
I'd heard quite a bit of buzz about this book but I wasn't that bothered about reading it until I happened across an interview with the author. In the interview, Moggach stated that her main inspiration was Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller - one of my favourite books - and that it was Heller's novel that made her realise her main character didn't have to be likeable. This made my ears prick up not just because I generally enjoy books with supposedly unlikeable female protagonists, but because my response to Heller's creation, Barbara Covett, was different to that of many readers: while I'm not saying I actually liked Barbara exactly, I related to numerous aspects of the character, and I wondered immediately whether I would feel the same about Moggach's (anti?)heroine. Mainstream media reviews of the book have mostly been negative about Leila (I read one in a broadsheet newspaper that described her as a 'weirdo', and another dismissed the whole story as boring because the character herself is so 'dull'): I suspect, though I might be wrong, that online reviews from readers will probably be kinder. As much as I didn't really relate to Leila, and her narrative didn't provide a great deal of deep insights, I still felt the book was drawing the reader towards the question of whether they're more of a Leila or a Tess.
Interestingly, none of the things that have been touted as the main strengths of this book are the things I liked or found most appealing about it. The plot does, I suppose, make some interesting points about how someone can conceal their identity online and how technology has changed the ways people interact and relate to one another. But if you are a person of the internet and are au fait with various forms of social media and online representations/personalities/'lives', this isn't going to be anything you haven't thought about and discussed a hundred times before in more detail. Meanwhile, the light touch of Moggach's narrative, the thing that makes it so compulsively readable but might also lead some readers to dismiss it as trashy, is actually one of the cleverest things about it. Thrillers that aspire to be books of ideas often fall down at the ideas part, since the concepts they discuss are usually limited and juvenile. In Kiss Me First, however, the lack of real philosophical discussion actually works to the book's advantage, as it serves to highlight how easy it would be for someone like Adrian to flatter his targets' egos and make them believe they alone were the insightful, deep-thinking contributors he was searching for. Overall, I was mainly interested in this novel as a character study: in that sense, it could indeed be compared to Notes on a Scandal, and a number of other books I've loved with unreliable, unscrupulous, morally dubious and often delusional female narrators. Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy (a particularly apt comparison since Ashworth's Annie has the same naivety and inability to properly understand relationships as Leila); Anna Raverat's Signs of Life; Jane Harris's Gillespie and I; Susanna Jones's whole oeuvre. These books do not necessarily have much in common in the way of plot or setting, but their blithe yet cunning voices, and their vivid creation of complex protagonists who twist and turn as they tell a story that may or may not be wholly true, lend them a similar appeal.
I should also say that my five-star rating isn't a 'this is a literary masterpiece' five stars, it's more like a 'I just really, really enjoyed this' five stars. I didn't think it was a truly brilliant book, but I would still recommend it because it was so enjoyable and fascinating, as well as being a perfect fit for the type of thing I typically love. For the record, I did have a couple of quibbles with the plot, but nothing big enough to stop me from believing in the story.
While Kiss Me First admittedly conforms to a template, albeit one I happen to have a particular soft spot for, there's enough originality and intrigue to keep it fresh, and for me, the narrator is just the right mixture of sinister and sympathetic. This might not be the groundbreaking novel of our times that the hype machine would have you believe, but I adored it and, if you're still reading at this point, then you probably will too.
Rating: 9/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle