Kiss me First by Lottie Moggach
How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many of them are people you met online? How many are "real life" friends you haven't seen for months, maybe even years? I'm betting those people make up a pretty big percentage of your list. In fact, if your online life was your primary way of communicating with the world, that percentage might be pretty close to 100. But that doesn't mean these people don't care about you, and I'm certain you care about them. So, if you suddenly disappeared - stopped posting and liking and commenting - I'm betting that people would notice pretty quickly. Some people - maybe even most of them - would get quite upset. But… what if there was a way to disappear while your online life remained?
Leila, a veritable recluse after her mother's recent death from MS, narrates this novel. Through her involvement with the Internet forum called "Red Pill" (Matrix fans will get the reference), the site's leader, Adrian, approaches her with a proposition. Take over Tess's online life, so she can secretly commit suicide. But to do this properly, Leila has to get to know Tess so well, that she can literally become virtual Tess. Seems far-fetched? Not totally, and as the publisher's website states, "Kiss Me First asks a big question: how do we know who we're talking to online"? That website also has a link to the first interactive book trailer (go ahead, give it a try), which I have to admit, is what drew me to this book.
On the front of this book, Harper's Bazaar calls this "the first thriller to truly tackle a life lived online". I tend to agree with at least part of this assessment, that being looking into living in the online world. Leila's involvement with Tess and subsequent taking over her virtual life - not only with her permission, but also with her blessing - is certainly a fascinating twist. That means this isn't identity theft, at least not in any present criminal sense. It also raises the question of the morality of suicide, and whether we have either the right or the obligation to stop someone from committing it. Even more, this book investigates the lines between what we portray online and who we really are, and if those lines are closely blurred or an ever widening gap.
But philosophy and the law aside, we have to remember this is a novel - it is fiction. That there is a close proximity of the premise to our world today is what makes it so fascinating. And Moggach expertly brings all of this to the fore, with prose that is at the same time gritty and innocent. By this, I mean that Moggach portrays Leila as being young enough to be naïve about many things, but also the type of outsider who pushes people away, both intentionally and unintentionally. She feels rejected, but compensates for this by saying she doesn't need others. So when Adrian compliments her, she laps it up and it is no wonder that she buys into this elaborate scheme. This is how Moggach hooks us with Leila and then immediately grabs us with Tess through Leila's research into her life. But despite the sympathy, and even empathy, we feel for both Leila and Tess, Moggach also gives us some niggling doubts about both of them. That makes them both all the more human and their stories all the more mesmerizing. It is exactly what one would expect from a thriller novel, so bravo to Moggach for that.
However, I do have to say that I did have some problems with this book. The first was that I felt the climax wasn't quite what I was hoping to get. It just didn't have enough of that "oh, MY goodness, WOW" feeling I was expecting. There are, however, a couple of hefty "ohs" and "ahs" along the way and Moggach builds up to them smoothly, without rushing or holding back. I also felt that the conclusion after the climax felt a little tired and apologetic, as if Moggach was saying "sorry, but that's all there is; I have nothing more I can say". However, in her defense, one could say that Moggach is suggesting that while this experience changed Leila's life, it only did so somewhat, and in that, there is a glimmer of hope.
As a debut novel, this is certainly one of the better efforts I've read. I enjoyed Moggach's style enormously, and she has a true talent for both character and plot development. I was hoping for more of an all-out bang, but only got a couple of slightly startling pops and that is the main reason why I'm warmly recommending it and giving it four out of five stars. The content and concept is so creative, fresh and timely and Moggach pulled it off so well that I know I'll be watching out for her books in the future.
"Kiss me First" by Lottie Moggach released in July 2013 by Picador (Pan McMillian), is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.