The first long section of Camille Laurens’ novel Celle que Vous Croyez, translated into English as Who You Think I Am (Other Press), draws you deeply into the story as the narrator, Claire, a divorced single mother, relates a twisted tale of how she created a false Facebook identity to glean information about an ex-boyfriend from a friend of his.
She and her new Facebook friend end up falling in love online, the only problem being that he is in love with someone who doesn’t exist, the much younger “avatar” she has invented. Desperate to be near the flesh-and-blood man, the narrator contrives to meet him as her real self. A relationship begins.
Or does it? Throughout this part of the book, the narrator has been telling this story to her shrink as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. We don’t know why she is there. The next voice we hear is that of the shrink himself, speaking to a disciplinary committee in the hospital. He has apparently committed the serious fault of falling in love with his patient.
Then we hear another voice, that of Camille, the teacher of a writing workshop that has been mentioned several times by Claire. Camille is writing to her editor, and we gather that she has stolen Claire’s story for her novel. Or is she really Claire? Hard to say. Eventually we learn that Camille, too, is a patient in the hospital. Oh dear.
I won’t untangle all these strands for you and spoil the ending because I wasn’t able to untangle them myself and get to the bottom of the story. And that is the point of the book: the muddle of identity, further complicated by the lies so easily perpetrated on social media platforms like Facebook. No one, not even Chris, the object of the female characters’ lust, is who we think he is.
It is all very clever, savvy, intriguing and, at least through the first half, entertaining. The fine translation by Adriana Hunter is full of witty word play, and the story is absorbing until it becomes annoying. Laurens, in the past the winner of numerous awards for her “autofiction,” (autobiography disguised as fiction), including the prestigious Femina prize in 2000, brings a very French form of sexy feminism to her book, but although she seems to consider herself a feminist, I don’t really buy it, as the whole premise of the book seems to be that a man’s betrayal is enough to drive a woman crazy. Crazy like a fox – or a novelist.