This past weekend, Shonda Rhimes announced that her first project for Netflix will be a dramatic series about the life of Anna Delvey, a doe-eyed young woman who now sits in a jail cell on Riker’s Island facing six counts of grand larceny. Delvey, who claimed to be a glamorous German heiress for years as she swanned around lower Manhattan buying couture and living out of hotels like a deranged Eloise, has been the talk of New York City, ever since writer New York Magazine Jessica Pressler published her epic investigation into Delvey’s fraudulent lifestyle. Delvey was not, in fact, an heiress. She came from a middle-class background, and had passed as money-to-burn wealthy by forging checks and straightfoward bank fraud. But what set the media world afire was the manner in which Delvey scammed her circle of acquaintances by successfully playing the role she cast herself in: she convinced one woman, a photo editor at Vanity Fair, to travel with her a Marrakech resort and then left her friend responsible for the $62,000 bill. The story of Delvey’s dirty deeds spread across the Internet like wildfire (Rhimes optioned it in less than a two weeks) because it has all the elements of a delicious story: big-ticket meals, designer goods, financial ruin, gullible social climbers, and most important, a really good grift. We love to read about grifters because they expose to us the gaps in our reality; they see loopholes that we would never think to exploit. We treat them almost like superheroes — or at least mutants — who have discovered how to see through capitalism to its dirty heart and manipulate it for their own gain. They are one-person heist films: we watch to see how they did it, squinting for the twist.
And yet Delvey’s story was relatively tame, as far as grifting goes. A few people lost money, but in the end, no one got too badly hurt. Certainly no one died. We can gaze upon her story with bemused detachment because the consequences were ultimately circumscribed. But not all scams turn out so clean. Sometimes the con man (or woman) is found out too soon, and turns to desperate measures to survive. Such stories can get very dark, very quickly — and therefore make evergreen and for literary thrillers. One of the best books of this kind ever written, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, introduces a man who lies about his identity to enter the gilded cafe society of mid-century expatriates living in Italy, and then who kills in order to protect his secret. Tom Ripley isn’t just interested in stealing money, he wants to steal an entire life, to graft himself onto another man’s existence and overtake it like an eclipse. His grift springs not out greed but of envy; unlike Anna Delvey, Ripley wasn’t as interested in cash as he was in cache.
I was surprised that it took so long for someone to update The Talented Mr. Ripley for the modern era, given the flourishing of interpersonal jealousy made possible by a constant barrage of social media. We spend all day double-tapping on Instagram photos of acquaintances cavorting in Mallorca or eating a perfect salted chocolate chip cookie on a veranda; covetousness is the response the medium seems built to cultivate. Most of us know how to keep our green-eyed flashes at bay — and we know that people’s lives only look perfect from the outside — but what if we didn’t? What if this social media fascination turned monstrous? What if millennials, faced with a crumbling job market and dwindling morale, chose to channel their frustrations into devious, violent schemes to usurp each other?
These are the questions that Tara Isabella Burton raises in her effervescent debut, Social Creature, which re-locates the Ripley story to the same money-drenched Manhattan Anna Delvey manipulated . In marketing speak, Burton’s novel is Patricia Highsmith-meets-Gossip Girl, a mashup of a long con and the demimonde. But this is simplifying Burton’s magic trick; she has taken our insatiable love of grifter stories and our contemporary obsession with Instagram voyeurism and twisted them into sparkling, high-flying prose and an timely allegory about female friendship that is so propulsive that I read the entire book in two days (I even took it with me into the bathtub, as my waterlogged copy can attest).
Burton, in her day job, covers the religion and theology beat for the news site Vox. This makes her an expert on both the classics and the grind of the gig economy, which turns out to be a potent combination when it comes to fiction. Her two main characters begin the story in opposite circumstances, though their lives quickly entwine. Lavinia is a 23-year-old wealthy vagabond who is living in her parents’ stately apartment while they are abroad in Paris. She claims to be taking a break from her tenure at Yale to write a novel, but what she really does well is attend parties and rack up charges on her parent’s credit card. She is constantly drinking exotic flavored teas and lounging about in silk kimonos; she wears a custom perfume that smells of figs. Louise, on the other hand, is older (pushing 30) and struggling to stay afloat under the crushing expenses of living in New York. She, too, wants to be a writer, but she is stuck tutoring high-schoolers, making lattes, and writing ad copy for an online clothing retailer called GlaZam. Even with three jobs, Louise can barely afford her Brooklyn apartment, and, by the time she meets Lavinia, she is contemplating moving home to New Hampshire. Lavinia has called Louise to hire her — to tutor her little sister, Cordelia — but the moment they meet, Lavinia decides to adopt Louise as a kind of cosmopolitan fixer-upper. She begins to refer to her new friend as “Lulu” and starts dragging Louise around Manhattan to glittering social events — a secret party at Brazenhead books, a black tie fete at Sleep No More, galas at the Metropolitan Opera. She clothes Louise in tulle and satin, and Louise quickly takes to her benefactor’s largesse. Soon, Lavinia and Lulu are co-habitating (Louise lives with Lavinia rent-free) and are attending soirees as an unbreakable unit. They get matching tattoos that read “More Poetry!!!” (an inside joke about embracing the romance of life) and are confessing their darkest secrets to each other over cardamom-chocolate tea at two in the morning.
And then: the shocking twist. I don’t want to spoil it for you, because the best part of any thriller is the gasp, but what I can say is that Burton has written a villain for the ages in Social Creature. Is it Lavinia, with her figgy scent, hazy finances, and pedantic literary references? Or is it Lulu, with her unquenchable desire for upward mobility and her need to stay in New York by any means possible? What is so fun about Social Creature is that there are moments when you can spot the fraud in both of these lives, as well as moments where you feel that their friendship is so ironclad that it is impossible to imagine anything ever tearing them asunder. Burton has, in her striking novel, made a searing observation about the nature of alliances in competitive cities, especially when the economy of creative work is so tenuous. It’s in the nature of a city — and especially of being young in a city — to find our friends among people who were, until moments before, complete strangers. We inhale grifter stories, as Burton understands, because they show us how dangerous it can be to put our trust in a stranger, no matter how elegant, or well-connected they may seem. Their story might evaporate into thin air; you just hope they don’t take you down with them when it does.