Emmy Jackson is a social media influencer. She has built up one million Instagram followers for her online persona, Mamabare, chronicling her life as mother of precocious daughter Coco and newborn son Bear, and wife of long-suffering spouse, Dan. Through much trial and error – and the intercessions of her media-savvy agent, Irene – Emmy has found the Instamum sweet spot: posting images and stories of a perfectly relatable, everyday mother grappling with the travails of raising children while not ignoring the toll it can take on a woman’s physical and mental well-being. She spearheads an online campaign known as #greydays that allows people to discuss “battles with the blue-hued moments of motherhood” (with a portion of all profits from associated merchandise going to organizations that support mental health). When #greydays becomes too blasé or depressing, Irene and Emmy concoct #yaydays to accentuate those happy or joyful moments that mothers experience with their children.
It’s a well-rounded approach to mothering that has earned her an army of fans and followers across the internet. And according to Emmy, the secret to her success is her absolute honesty about both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood.
To which Dan has one succinct response: “Bullshit. Bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit.” While Emmy claims to have built her brand on complete honesty, Dan unveils the wizard behind the curtain: a coldly calculating woman who will say anything necessary to promote and propagate the online character she has created – a character that has earned her endorsements and followers by the score.
The early pages of People Like Her, the debut thriller from Ellery Lloyd, neatly set up the dichotomy between the husband and wife pair who will each serve as narrator in alternating sections of the novel. Dan is a disillusioned writer who hasn’t published a book since his first novel appeared eight years previously. As his wife’s online star is in the ascendant, he bangs away halfheartedly at his follow-up while a succession of editors treat him to a succession of less and less fancy lunches. Things seem poised to turn around when a new editor invites him for a three-course meal with wine, only to ask him what his thoughts are about whether his wife might have any interest in turning her online experiences into a book.
Emmy, meanwhile, spends much of her time responding personally to each of her DMs (she receives some 400 per day) and organizes a brand-conscious, photo-ready blowout for her daughter’s fourth birthday. Her version of honesty is telling each fan who writes to her or approaches her at events whatever that fan wants to hear in the moment. She has tailored her online image so carefully that she can appear to be all things to everybody, while never really allowing anyone access to her real self. This has nabbed her a small fortune in swag and advertising (or, in the parlance of her narration, #ads).
There is a third narrator, an anonymous online follower who appears to be stalking Emmy, using internet sleuthing techniques to determine where she lives and, eventually, crossing into the real world by luring Coco away from her father at a local mall. The Jacksons’ house is broken into and a laptop belonging to Emmy’s assistant is stolen; when pictures of Coco that Emmy has never posted begin appearing online, they start to realize that someone is targeting them for more than abuse in the comments section on Instagram.
Ellery Lloyd is the pen name for husband and wife authors Collette Lloyd and Paul Vlitos; together they have crafted a thriller that is clever, knowing, and fast, pushing its story forward with carefully calibrated twists and reveals while also being very smart about the corrosive effects of online culture. “It’s not that people should be more cynical about social media or influencers,” Dan muses at one point, ”it’s that they are cynical about them in such naive ways.” Dan marvels at how carefully Emmy crafts her posts to find just the right awkward syntax or relatable cliché; an intellectual snob prone to referencing Tolstoy and Flaubert, he is nonetheless impressed by his wife’s acumen at courting and keeping fans. “The truth is there is something genuinely amazing about Emmy’s ability to find the right words (which are often, technically, the wrong words) to establish a connection with people. It is a talent. It is a skill. It is something she has put time and effort and thought into.”
Emmy, for her part, is not simply a sociopathic narcissist, but a woman who authentically loves her family and works hard to preserve their safety. She is careful never to post photos of her children unclothed, in the bath, or even in bathing suits, and she assiduously avoids words or images that could divulge where the family lives. (It is a photo for a Sunday Times profile that provides their stalker the necessary information to track them down online.) Her ambition drives her to do things that range from thoughtless to reprehensible, but it is to the authors’ credit that she never comes across as wholly despicable.
The novel is not without problems. A secondary plot strand strains credulity, expecting readers to accept that none of Emmy’s followers would recognize the daughter of one of the internet’s most famous Instamums when she appears on a counterfeit site as a different girl. And for a novel that spends so much time critiquing the ills of social media, the climax, which is predicated on determining a location based on clues uncovered by an army of online amateur sleuths, is at best ironic and at worst a cop-out.
That climactic search is followed by one delicious twist and a finale that leaves room for a sequel. The denouement is savage in its irony and its eagerness to fillet both husband and wife as opportunists willing to exploit their most painful and horrific experiences for money and fame. If the authors had left things there, they would have gone out on an undeniable high note. The coda that hints at more to come seems unnecessarily anticlimactic after such a wicked turnabout in the novel’s final moments.