Kiss Me First is a novel from 2013 that feels like it was written specifically for me and my set of interests, and I enjoyed it immensely. The story’s genre is technically “psychological thriller,” but it’s really about a sheltered 23-year-old shut-in with Asperger’s slowly making friends and learning to find her place in the world.
Leila, the first-person narrator, is completely alone after her mother dies of MS. She doesn’t know her father, her grandmother hates her, she never went to college, she doesn’t have any friends from school, and she works a part-time tech job remotely from her bedroom in a small apartment above a restaurant. She spends most of her time online, playing World of Warcraft and posting on a thinly disguised version of the RationalWiki forums called, appropriately enough, Red Pill.
Eventually she comes to the attention of the founder of Red Pill, a man named Adrian. He essentially grooms her into accepting the job of impersonating a 30-something-year-old woman named Tess online so that the real Tess, who has paid him for this service, can go off and commit suicide without arousing suspicion.
Leila takes the job very seriously. Although she insists on seeing Tess as nothing more than a client, it’s clear to the reader that Tess is becoming her friend, and that she and Tess come to care about each other quite a great deal. It also becomes clear to the reader (although not so much to Leila) that Adrian is a narcissistic sociopath. Along the way, Leila ends up inadvertently catfishing Tess’s old boyfriend Connor, who falls in love with the persona she’s created. Again, the reader understands that this man is creepy, but Leila doesn’t. She also takes on a boarder in order to help pay the rent while she devotes herself to writing what amounts to real person fanfic about Tess, and this character ends up becoming a nonjudgmental moral center who helps Leila understand the potential of the world outside the confines of “rationalism.”
The novel’s main mystery is what happened to Tess, and I think that’s sufficiently addressed. The conclusion of the story is very satisfying, and everything fits together neatly without any surprise clues only coming to light at the end. In addition, the consequences of Tess’s online behavior are dealt with honestly and realistically, which was refreshing. What I personally found interesting about the story, however, was how Leila gradually opens up to the people she interacts with and finally starts to develop meaningful relationships.
I have something of a strange fascination not with catfishing, necessarily, but with the difficulties and nuances of existing as a person online. The question of “could you find out so much about someone that you can successfully pass as them online” is intriguing, and the author digs deep into the mechanics of how this would (or wouldn’t) work.
If nothing else, it was fun to read a novel set mostly online that isn’t burdened with an older person’s bizarre approximation of how younger people speak to one another. This is a bit off topic, but this is one of the main reasons why I have a lot of trouble reading contemporary YA novels: I cannot deal with tone-deaf text exchanges, especially when two characters are supposed to be friendly or flirting. I can’t really explain why this is so grating, except to shake my head and mutter that no one actually speaks in Lolcat.