Back in 2013, Lottie Moggach’s debut novel Kiss Me First was at the centre of a bidding war amongst countless publishers and has since been adapted into a TV series. Given the premise of the book, it’s understandable that there was such initial interest.
Leila is a lonely young woman who is living in a scummy flat above an Indian restaurant following the death of her mother. Socially inept, she struggles to hold down a job and has few friends, a situation exacerbated by her inability to navigate social media. She spends her days testing software at home to make ends meet, but finds a new outlet when she joins the website Red Pill, a philosophical discussion group, where she soon becomes recognised as an ‘elite thinker’.
Soon she is approached by the site-owner Adrian Dervish who has a proposition for her. He will pay her to pretend to be a woman called Tess online for at least six months to cover up Tess’s impending suicide and spare Tess’s family the pain of losing her.
As concepts go, it’s an unbelievable one, both in fiction and in real life, so it is to Moggach’s credit that, initially, the novel is completely intriguing. Tess is the polar opposite of Leila. Beautiful, hypnotic and impulsive, she also lots of friends, boyfriends but is also bi-polar and this has led to her decision to kill herself. Leila and Tess must spend time together online so that Leila can learn her backstory, family, friends, likes, dislikes and speech patterns to successfully impersonate Tess online after she is gone – answering emails, updating Facebook and suggesting that Tess has gone to live abroad.
There are two timelines in the book – one that follows Laila’s planning with Tess before her disappearance and another in the present day where Laila is looking for Tess in a commune in Spain, hinting that not everything has gone to plan. And what of Adrian Dervish? What part has he been playing in this dangerous charade?
The relationship between Tess and Leila is an intriguing one and as Leila gets to know every detail of Tess’s life, she not only comes to identify with her, but thinks that she can become her. She loses her sense of self while pretending to be this enigmatic woman and when Leila starts to interact with one of Tess’s ex boyfriends, the lines between the two women become blurred.
People and things would continue to exist in a world where I did not, and no one would ever think of me. And, if that was the case, then what was the point of existing in the first place?
Moggach raises interesting questions about social media and how much people know about us solely from what they read about us online. How do we create our identity? Is it through who we are as people, or through what we like and dislike on Facebook and the photos we share on Instagram? As we experience less face-to-face interaction, could those we are close to really be fooled if someone else began posting on our behalf? The question of assisted suicide, which this undoubtedly is, is less well explored however and the morality of what Leila is doing goes slightly unchecked.
The tension dissipates a bit however once Tess is out of the picture. Leila, while believable, is not an intriguing enough character, and the concept, while intriguing, becomes less and less believable the deeper Leila becomes embroiled in Tess’s world. Would it really be possible for someone to imitate you so well that your own mother wouldn’t recognise you on the phone? Despite a strong opening, the novel peters out somewhat with an ambiguous but ultimately unsatisfying ending.
The idea behind Kiss Me First is certainly an interesting one – which I thought was interrogated better in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature – but it will make you think about the curation of a persona on social media.
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