Social Creature is the gritty summer thriller that makes a strong case for unlikable characters — and reading more poetry

Have you ever read a book that triggered your anxiety, but in a good way? From the very first page of Social Creature, Tara Isabella Burton drops you in a tense world of insane privilege that will absolutely consume you. At first, you might not care for Louise, the poor girl from nothing, and Lavinia, the wealthy New York City socialite who takes Louise under her wing. Louise is desperate to please Lavinia, whose life mantra can be summed up as “MORE POETRY!!!,” a privileged war cry for wanting to do/see/feel/experience more, more, more at any cost. The women aren’t exactly role models or best friend material.

And yet, as irresponsible as Louise and Lavinia are, you’ll also feel for them. For all the times you’ll want to scream at them for making poor choices, you’ll also want to reach through the page and give them a big hug. You may never relate 1:1 (you’ve probably never murdered your friend at a swanky party and hauled her dead body home in a cab), but you’ll still see parts of yourself in them, even if you don’t want to admit it out loud.

It’s not a spoiler that Lavinia dies; Burton wrote Social Creature as a response text to The Talented Mr. Ripley. But even though you know the gist of what’s going to happen, it’s still shocking to watch it all unfold. Once you sit down to read it, I hope you don’t have anywhere to be, because you won’t be able to put it down. You’ll want to know how, when, and where it happens. But most of all, you’ll want to know how Louise carries on after — and what she does next.

I spoke with Burton about morality, the complexities of privilege, and the importance of unlikable characters like Louise and Lavinia. You don’t want to miss Social Creature, the gritty, twisted, and poetic summer thriller that’s addicting from cover to cover. Have I mentioned that it’s this month’s #HGBookClub pick?

HelloGiggles: Where did this story come from? Did you know just how far you would go when you started writing it, or did it get more and more twisted as you went?

Tara Isabella Burton: There’s a double answer to that. The original Social Creature, which had nothing to do with Social Creature, was a novel that I wrote when I was about 19 that wasn’t very good. It had no murder in it. It was about a quartet: essentially Rex, Hal, Lavinia, and another version of Louise. It took place on a Mediterranean cruise ship and it was about the relationship between these four people, particularly between the wife and the ex-girlfriend of this man…it was not very good. I put it in a drawer and I tried to write other things. I got close; I got an agent from a manuscript, and it went out on submission, but it didn’t go anywhere. It got close enough to give me the confidence to try something else.

Over the years, I wrote a few more novels — I think I had three before Social Creature go on submission and always get close [to being picked up], but not quite. Every draft of every new story, I was learning something. But I always felt like these characters — these are the characters I felt close to. These are the characters I cared most about. I wanted to give them the right book. I was sitting in my agent’s office, and she made an offhand comment about a thriller she was reading. She said, You know, it’s a shame that no one’s ever done a female ‘Talented Mr. Ripley.’ You’d never do that, would you? I was like, Oh, no, I don’t think so. All the previous drafts I’d written are what one might call “literary fiction.” I wasn’t very big on plot; I was very big on characters speaking for 20 pages. I was like, I could never write a thriller. It was a beautiful day, so I walked home from her office. I remember walking, and as I was walking, being like, Hey, wait a second. Suddenly, a Ripley story was the best way to tell THEIR story.

In my early 20s, I was living in London for grad school, but I’d been coming back to New York, where I’m from originally. My grandmother was ill, and I was coming back to visit her, living this life in the city. In that time, I developed many friendships, some of which were, unfortunately toxic. Others were wonderful. That world of New York and being in your 20s and trying to make it as a writer, and that sense that you’re running out of time and everyone’s doing better than you are and you have to compete to be the best at everything, whether it’s social media or bylines at specific publications. That experience over seven years informed the final draft of the book, and then I ended up writing it very quickly. I think I started it in June and sold it by the next March. It took 10 years to write a book in six months.

HG: It makes sense that Louise and Lavinia have been with you for so long now. They’re so developed and they’re so complicated. Sometimes I wanted to strangle both of them, but sometimes I just wanted to give them a hug. I see the good in both of them. Do you love them, or do you hate them?

TIB: Oh, I love them. I recognize that they’re unlikable, and I don’t think female characters or any characters should be likable. But at the same time, it always makes me quite sad to hear people dismiss characters as unlikable. I think the things that are unlikable in both Louise and Lavinia are things that are, in degree, but not in kind, very universal. We all are insecure. We all want to be loved. We all make up stories about ourselves in order to make people like us better. I hope the reason Louise and Lavinia make people so uncomfortable is because they trigger, in a really intense way, this very widespread — particularly among young women — insecurity that we all share. I do love them both. I think they’re both good people. I don’t think I’ve ever written a bad person as a character, but I think I write people who aren’t likable because they’re showing us, the reader, their flaws, which are really our flaws. They’re not likable, but I hope they’re lovable.

HG: All of us are a little bit like both of them.

TIB: I hope so! I think I’m like both of them. Sometimes people will write positive reviews and be like, This is a great book about sociopaths. And I’m like, Am I a sociopath? Maybe I’m a sociopath and I didn’t know it. That’s kind of trippy. The jury is out. But I certainly relate to them both autobiographically. They’re not just projections of bad qualities for me.

HG: There’s something about being friends with a Lavinia that can be very fun. Stressful, but fun. Have you ever known a Lavinia?

TIB: Oh, I’ve known several. I grew up on the Upper East Side. That world of the book, and that world of thoughtless privilege, was very common to many of the people I grew up with. To talk about it purely as money, or just financial privilege, is a too narrow conception of what a lot of these people offer. It’s not just that they have the money to pay the bill; it’s the actual sense of security they have that their problems will be fixed, that their messes will be cleaned up, that no mistakes they make could ever have really bad consequences. You have the privilege to do things knowing that someone is always going to pick up the pieces. What I wanted to capture, in terms of capturing the Lavinias I’ve known, was not simply those people I know that have money — although certainly, that’s the case — but also the people who can take such leaps, because it’s never been challenged by circumstance. But ultimately, in the character, it was Lavinia’s idealism that was more interesting to me than just the fact that she had nice clothes or went to nice parties.

HG: It was so powerful that she literally held the keys to Louise’s home, comfort, and safety. And that she had more fun than Louise did even after she died.

TIB: Lavinia is someone whose whole life is about the image she creatures. She’s so reliant on it. You know those Greek myths where gods will turn someone into a tree, or turn someone into a constellation, and they live forever? I feel like Lavinia’s Greek myth is she gets turned into an image of herself. She gets turned into a reverse Picture of Dorian Gray. Louise justifies a lot of her decisions in this weird poetic sense that like, It’s what Lavinia would have wanted! Now she can be a character forever! Even though as we learn, especially when Lavinia’s sister Cordelia reenters the picture, she’s a real human being underneath all of the feathers and fancy clothes.

HG: I’ve never been in Louise’s position before, but I still related to her. Especially that she kept giving herself deadlines to make a change in her life. We all convince ourselves that our bad circumstances are only temporary, but it’s so easy to settle into unhealthy routines.

TIB: Absolutely. Louise’s man problem isn’t anger or lust or jealousy. It’s lack of self-knowledge. She’s lying. She’s a liar. She lies to herself more than anyone else. Louise is completely unable to see Lavinia for who she is throughout the book; Lavinia is always a hero or a villain. But Lavinia is never just a human being like her. Without giving too much away, once the main event of the book happens — after Lavinia’s death — Louise similarly lies to herself, going, I’m just doing this because I have to or It’s just one more day or I’m not a bad person. We tell ourselves so many lies to justify the things we do so we don’t have to think of ourselves as bad people.

This book is very much, and very consciously, a response text to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I wrote it exactly as a response text the same way, for example, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a response text to Jane Eyre. But Ripley’s a grifter and a con artist; he knows what he’s doing. Louise isn’t. Louise just wants to be loved. She just wants to survive. Every decision she makes is short term and pretty stupid. She’s in a How can I put out this fire in front of me? position. She’s just trying to hold on for dear life. I don’t even think she wants to stay out of jail, I think she’s just so afraid that someone’s not going to like her. Her motivation in every moment is, How can I make sure that people don’t stop liking me? I think that’s relatable. I’m someone who very much wants to be liked.

HG: I’m going to get deep now. If you’re unhappy, do you have the right to be selfish?

TIB: Ooh! This is where my background in religion comes in. The question that Louise struggles with throughout the book is, is she going to get away with it? God’s not going to strike down a lightning bolt because what you did was wrong. But what does morality even mean? I think one of the things that torments Louise is no one’s striking her down. Does she have the right to be selfish? Well, who’s making those rights? Who’s making those rules? No lighting bolt has struck Louise down. What she realizes is that she may not have the right to be selfish, but that doesn’t mean that being selfish is going to have any consequences for her. I don’t know if we have the right to be selfish, but I also think understanding people’s unhappiness may not mitigate what they do, but it helps how we see them. I think understanding Louise’s unhappiness may not mean that we condone her actions, but it means we see her as a human being, and we don’t dismiss her. Her unhappiness can help us understand her more fully.

HG: Is it ungrateful to be lonely?

TIB: I think being lonely is part of the human condition. I’m often lonely; everyone is often lonely. While Louise and Lavinia are both, on the surface, quite needy people, both of them have a very hard time accepting love. Lavinia doesn’t have to be paying for anything to get people to like her. Giving Louise money and letting her steal money, Lavinia is turning their relationship into a relationship of commerce. The measure is not always ungrateful, but the loneliness of the two in the book is compounded by not ingratitude, but unwillingness to be vulnerable by accepting love from someone else on their own terms rather than through the language of commerce and what we can get from somebody else. Great questions.

HG: There’s still so much I want to know about Louise. Has Louise done this before? Is she going to do it again? Was she born as Louise? Do her parents know her as Louise, or is Louise one of her many aliases?

TIB: Louise is someone who has suffered relationship trauma and has been violent before. This is her origin story. I think she does do this again. She’s got the mark of Cain on her now. She’s put herself so fully outside of human life and human relationships and human love, Louise will never tell the truth again.

HG: Who is the narrator? It felt like they were always one step ahead of me.

TIB: Ooh! I was really inspired by one of my favorite books, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which is famous for having a very intrusive narrator. I loved the idea of an intrusive narrator. In my mind, the narrator is that voice in your head when you’re really anxious that “everybody knows.” Everyone knows what you did. Everybody saw. Everyone hates you. It’s a voice that is very disengaged and very rational, but secretly designed to pick at your insecurities. The book is narrated by Louise’s anxiety. In the last line, the anxiety loses its hold on her because she becomes someone else. The narrator’s voice was designed to mimic that crazy voice in your head that pretends to be objective. It’s a world where your anxiety is actually real.

HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?

TIB: I just read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I loved it so much. I also just read Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which I think is massively underrated. And Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which is a modern feminist retelling of Beowulf. It’s just so beautifully written.

Social Creature is now available wherever books are sold.

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