Many readers will recognize Zoe Whittall’s name from her work as a comedy writer on the Baroness von Sketch Show, which earned her a Canadian Screen Award, and from her 2016 novel, The Best Kind of People, which was a national bestseller and shortlisted for the Giller Prize. (The writer and director Sarah Polley, who adapted Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, is working on a film version.) Whittall’s latest book, The Fake, is a whip-quick dramedy that combines the episodic quality of a television serial with the deep reflections of classic literature. Set in present-day Toronto, the novel centres on the interrelated lives of three troubled characters: Shelby, a hypochondriac reeling from her wife’s recent death; Gibson, a middle-aged divorcee pining for his ex-wife; and Cammie, a devious yet charismatic manipulator — and “the Fake” of the title.
The first chapter begins with Gibson “getting head from an enthusiastic woman he met three hours earlier.” (Talk about in medias res.) That woman turns out to be Cammie, who picked up Gibson at a bar on College Street and flirted her way into his new bachelor’s apartment. It wasn’t difficult. The downtrodden, self-effacing accountant was all too eager to reciprocate her advances: “It’s actually confusing him, that she picked him up. He’s not handsome. He is tall. That’s one thing he has going for him, maybe?”
As they begin seeing each other regularly, Gibson falls for Cammie, who is impulsive, opinionated, salacious — everything his ex wasn’t. But she’s also a bad influence, prodding him to skip work, lie to his friends, and lease a car well beyond his pay grade. After a week, the two discuss buying a farmhouse near the far-flung city of Owen Sound, and Gibson realizes something must be amiss. Their relationship is moving too fast. But when Cammie tells him she loves him, he “feels it with his whole chest” and forgets his reservations: “Maybe it’s the love Gibson has been wanting but too afraid to look for. The kind of love people write songs about.” The naked selfies she constantly texts him don’t hurt.
Meanwhile, Cammie meets Shelby at a grief support group, and they become fast friends. Again, Cammie proves a bad influence, cajoling the widow into drinking wine late at night on a precarious rooftop —“I thought you hadn’t left your apartment in months. What would make a more exciting chapter in your memoir?”— and inspiring her to drop her antidepressant down the toilet. “Everyone’s on that shit,” Cammie argues. When she moves into Shelby’s basement under the pretense that Gibson is an abusive boyfriend and a compulsive gambler, while throwing in her own made-up cancer diagnosis for good measure, Cammie’s scheme becomes all too clear. By inventing woeful stories, she’ll ingratiate herself with vulnerable Shelby. After earning the woman’s trust, Cammie will steal her stuff — then frame Gibson. This inevitability becomes obvious to the reader long before either of the victims figures it out, but that’s assuredly Whittall’s intention. It’s like knowing the solution to a Wheel of Fortune puzzle and being unable to share it with the struggling contestants on the screen: we’re meant to be frustrated by their myopia.
Eventually, Gibson and Shelby meet and, after an agonized discussion, realize they’re both being conned. The pair also send a Facebook message to the sibling Cammie claims is dead. Ten minutes later, Leslie responds, “My sister is troubled.” Outraged but unsurprised by Cammie’s deceit, Leslie explains that her sister has a history of lying and suggests the trio stage an intervention. The novel’s climax arrives with their confrontation of the Fake, now exposed.
Cammie, Gibson, and Shelby are believable characters, their motivations well defined. And the story moves at a brisk pace. Between Whittall’s snappy prose and the engaging plot, readers will easily finish the novel in a day or two. That’s not to say there aren’t profound ideas to chew on. As signalled by its title, The Fake addresses an enduring theme: the slippage between truth and falsehood. Whittall goes beyond the simplistic notion that lying is always bad and the truth is always good, asking readers, How do you know who you really are? Gibson and Shelby presume that manifesting their true inner selves will resolve their grief. Yet, Whittall implies, who we are is intimately tied to those around us. Perhaps, then, our salvation lies not within but in the company of others. As Shelby puts it, “Having the instinct to love someone, to be there for them, that’s a good thing. Don’t lose sight of that.”
As much as I enjoyed the novel, I do have one gripe: it lets Cammie off too easily. While I won’t spoil the ending, suffice it to say the Fake never receives her comeuppance, which makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Imagine that pious fraud Tartuffe successfully swindling Orgon, or Pinocchio’s nose growing into infinity, or the boy continuing to cry wolf even after the sheep have been eaten. Call me old-fashioned, but this villain needed some humble pie, served by the heroes. At least, that’s the truth as I see it.