We know from the very beginning of The Fake — Zoe Whittall’s fast-paced, grief-steeped, delectable novel — that Cammie is a scammer. She swirls into the lives of Shelby and Gibson, so charming and irresistible that even as the red flags stack up, they can’t see her for what she really is. We know all along she’s a scammer. And even though we have that information and are waiting for the characters to catch up, there’s still significant tension, suspense, and an unsolvable mystery at the novel’s core.
The Fake doesn’t hinge on a twist so much as it hinges on the turmoil of being a scammer’s mark. Scam narratives are almost as intoxicating as scammers themselves, and The Fake is no exception. We love to be seduced by these stories of scammers. But scammers fucking ruin lives. The Fake doesn’t glamorize its scammer, even as it has a lot of compassion for all its characters throughout, focusing less on the scammer and more on the scammees and the intense and messy psychological damage done to them. This look at the chaos and pain scammers instill in their victims is so up-close and personal that it’s discomfiting. Whittall knows you like a scammer story, and she isn’t afraid to make you feel uncomfortable about it.
Chapters alternate between Gibson and Shelby’s perspectives as they both quickly fall for Cammie and then uncover her sprawling web of lies. As Gibson’s much younger post-divorce girlfriend, Cammie operates like a midlife crisis-embroiled straight man’s fantasy. She loves blowjobs and wears sexy clothes and is charming, sweet, submissive. Gibson laps it right up, even when he knows it’s all a bit cliche, even when his friends side-eye this predictable divorced dude behavior.
Grief takes many shapes in the book. Shelby is mourning her dead wife Kate when Cammie comes into her life, and she spends the novel bereft, lonely, her lifelong hypochondriac anxieties worsening as she becomes increasingly isolated and unmoored on her island of grief. She spends her days watching Carol on repeat on the couch, her dog Coach Taylor Swift (lol) often the only reason she leaves home. She craves Kate’s scents, sniffing her hair pomade, her shirts, unwilling to remove any memories of Kate, even the last bag of tea in a box bought by her. Little memories of Kate and of their marriage together interrupt Shelby’s daily life in small and huge ways. It’s simultaneously painful and tender to read about their past, Shelby’s grief so deep, specific, and unsettling on the page. When Cammie comes into Gibson’s wife, he’s still grieving a divorce and the miscarriage his ex-wife experienced leading up to it.
And then by the end of the book, Gibson and Cammie have something strange and unwieldy to grieve together, both rattled by the gradual reveal that Cammie is not who she said she was, that her entire life is predicated on lies, and that their relationships with her were not real. At the same time, the good things Gibson and Shelby got from their relationships with Cammie still feel real to them. They cannot deny that she pulled them each out of something, but it’s equally true that the pit she threw them into was even worse. We know Cammie is a scammer, but still the specificity and intentionality of her manipulations shocks. She wields stereotypes against Gibson and Shelby, knowing it will be easy for her to convince Gibson that Shelby is a man-hating, controlling lesbian with a crush on her and knowing it will be easy to convince Shelby that Gibson is an abusive, childish older boyfriend with a gambling addiction. She knows Gibson is motivated by sex, and she knows Shelby is motivated by caretaking. She reduces them to their most basic instincts, and it works until it doesn’t, until Shelby and Gibson prove to be, of course, so much more than the pawns Cammie makes them into.
The sex writing is great, too, though most of it is straight sex between Gibson and Cammie. But I personally think queer authors write straight people having sex better than straight authors do. Not only is the actual in-scene writing of sex good, but so is the writing about sex. I wrote in my review of Our Wives Under the Sea that I’m a sucker for a good list in fiction, and The Fake similarly brims with lists, too, especially as its characters recall the past. In this one, Gibson reflects on his ex-wife, on the physical things he remembers, ending with a question about sexuality so simple and yet so interesting to consider:
“He wonders if Veda is having sex with someone new now. He still remembers everything about Veda’s body, the birthmark between her breasts shaped like Alaska, her strangely shaped pink tow, how impossibly soft her skin was. He remembers the black Converse sneakers and jean skirt she wore on their first date. He remembers the things that he could say, in the right circumstances, that would drive her wild. Had it changed? Are turn-ons fixed or do they change with every lover?”
While I was surprised by just how invested I was in Gibson’s arc — a testament to Whittall’s ability to make all of these characters textured and emotionally complex, because yeah I’m not usually all that interested in reading about sad divorced straight men, but by the end, I’d protect Gibson at all costs! — my favorite passages live in Shelby’s chapters. The bruise of Kate’s absence is so intensely felt, and Whittall knows just when and how to press it. We learn Kate and Shelby both had complicated relationships with their families regarding their queerness. They became each other’s family. But Whittall doesn’t soften the edges of their marriage and turn them into some picturesque, boring display of lesbian domestic bliss. Along with the soft and the cozy, Shelby recalls the hard parts, like Kate getting sober, and the horny parts, too. They liked to do A League of Their Own roleplay. We know their sex life was robust, because now Shelby is convinced she’ll never have one again. Here she is looking at a couple newly in love:
“Shelby remembers when she and Kate were like that, when even if they were only driving an hour out of town they’d have to stop and have sex in the car on some side road, the bruises on her shins she’d have later that she liked to look at.”
The way Shelby’s anxieties are written feels so real and empathetic. Anxiety disorders like Shelby’s that make her so acutely paranoid would sometimes be played for laughs or seen as a character flaw, but not here. In fact, Shelby’s chapters might be some of the best writing of anxiety I’ve ever read in a novel.
For long paragraphs without breaks, we’re often deep in the recesses of Shelby’s busy mind (both her sections and Gibson’s are written in close third). When she enters grief group for the first time:
“This isn’t the right group for her. What the fuck does she have to be grateful for? She doesn’t need people to tell her to be grateful or offer platitudes that can be sewn into throw pillows sold at HomeSense, she needs people who know what it’s like to want to be as dead as the person they’re grieving. She requires spit and blood and desperation, not embroidery or any gloss over real feeling.”
God, I could read that section over and over! The book is frank about mental health throughout, touching on anxiety, depression, panic attacks, hypochondria, childhood trauma, SSRIs and withdrawal from them, and also the personality orders Shelby desperately hopes Cammie can be diagnosed with so then at least there can be an explanation for what is unexplainable.
The Fake isn’t trying to hoodwink the reader the way Cammie lives by. Shelby and Gibson’s thoughts are sometimes interrupted by future points of view: “Shelby is trapped on a bad group date she can’t get out of when Cammie walks into the room. Only she doesn’t yet know she’s Cammie, doesn’t know her life is about to be divided into Before Cammie and After Cammie.” Both Shelby and Gibson have moments where they know something’s off with Cammie, but they keep moving forward anyway. Some of the most compelling parts of the novel actually come after they’ve realized she’s a scammer, as they scramble to try to make sense of it. They want answers. For why Cammie did this. For why she chose them specifically. For how she continues to get away with it. Their grief over losing her is genuine, and it’s devastating to think they belong to a string of Cammie’s victims, they are not special, they will never know Cammie the way they felt known by her. Her scamming effects them financially, but even that isn’t as destabilizing as the psychological impact. Figuring out Cammie’s a scammer isn’t the mystery; Shelby and Gibson instead torture themselves with the mystery of why, a question that can’t really be answered. The last line before the epilogue will stay with me a long time.