The grande dame of literary identity theft is undoubtedly Patricia Highsmith. Her two most famous novels – Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – both feature characters who swap identities with someone else in morally compromised situations. Bruno, in the former, suggests trading murders with the milquetoast Guy when the two encounter each other on a train; in the latter, the eponymous character murders the wealthy playboy Dickie Greenleaf and starts passing himself off as the dead man. A small-time grifter in New York City, Ripley’s fortunes change when he is sent to Italy by Dickie’s father to persuade the dissolute young man to return to the U.S. The exotic locale is similar to the Tunisia of Highsmith’s lesser-known novel The Tremor of Forgery, the very title of which tilts in the direction of the author’s fascination with deceit and its consequences.
Comparisons to Highsmith – and The Talented Mr. Ripley in particular – are inevitable with regard to Brooklyn-based novelist Alexandra Andrews’s debut, about a woman who becomes the personal assistant to a bestselling writer and ends up stealing her identity. Andrews has acknowledged her debt to Highsmith, and also to Elena Ferrante, a pseudonymous author whose true identity is a subject as enticing as anything that appears in her bestselling Neapolitan novels. Both influences are readily apparent in Who Is Maud Dixon, a twisty, plot-driven novel in which the construction of an individual’s personality – how we appear to the world and to how we appear to ourselves – is a central concern.
Andrews’s protagonist, Florence Darrow, is an employee at a New York publishing house called Forrester Books. After being fired for in effect attempting to blackmail the editorial director, with whom she had a one-night stand, Florence is contacted by literary agent Greta Frost on behalf of her client, the mysterious novelist Maud Dixon. Author of Mississippi Foxtrot, a bestseller about friendship and murder in the American South, Maud Dixon is a complicated cipher – she lives in the sticks, writes under a pseudonym, and fiercely prizes her anonymity and isolation.
Greta is calling because her reclusive client, whose real name is Helen Wilcox, is looking for a live-in assistant; Florence, herself an aspiring writer, eagerly snaps up the job. In short order, the two establish a rapport, and Helen invites Florence to accompany her on a trip to Morocco as research for her long-delayed follow-up to Mississippi Foxtrot. While there, Florence awakes in hospital following a car accident to find that Helen has vanished without a trace; since no one knows the real identity of the pseudonymous Maud Dixon, and the inspector assigned to investigate the accident has mistaken Florence for Helen, the erstwhile assistant hatches a plan to take the writer’s place.
From the outset, Florence is presented as a creature of her ambition – not so much to be a writer as to possess the fame that goes along with public attention. It’s the external trappings of the authorial lifestyle that appeal to Florence, not so much the daily grind of writing itself. “Florence’s Bible was Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Andrews writes early on in the novel. “Admittedly, she spent more time scrolling through photos of Joan Didion in her sunglasses and Corvette Stingray than actually reading her.”
In Helen, Florence discovers a match for her outsized ego and expectations of fame. Florence is receptive to Helen’s great woman of history philosophy predicated on the notion that certain individuals have superiority baked into them. “If you spend your life looking for fairness you’ll be disappointed,” Helen tells Florence. “Fairness doesn’t exist. And if it did, it would be boring. … But if you search for greatness – for beauty, for art, for transcendence – those are where the rewards are.”
The superficial similarities between Florence and Helen are quickly apparent: they are both blonde and separated in age by only six years (Florence is twenty-six and Helen is thirty-two). They resemble one another closely enough that Florence is able to rent a car in Marrakesh using Helen’s driver’s licence. Florence is a palimpsest for Helen – who is herself a palimpsest for Maud Dixon – well before the writer’s disappearance; Andrews chips away at the edges of each woman’s individuality, emphasizing the areas in which they overlap like a Venn diagram. But more than this, both Florence and Helen reject the notion of personality as something stable, preferring instead those areas in which individuality slides and shifts across borders.
“To anonymity” is the toast Simon, Forrester’s editorial director, makes before his successful seduction of Florence, and the state of being anonymous becomes a metonym for defining oneself in opposition, if necessary, to reality. “But of course reality is malleable,” Helen tells Florence. “Sometimes you have to make your own story.”
In one sense, Who Is Maud Dixon? is about the perils and consequences of taking this idea to its logical extreme. “Everyone in Marrakesh is pretending to be someone they’re not,” says a hotel manager when the two women arrive in Morocco. (He also warns Helen not to list her occupation as writer on the sign-in form because it will draw the attention of the authorities: this is one of many examples of the way the various characters obfuscate – willingly or otherwise – about their true natures and situations.)
Of course Florence’s plan to become Helen will fall apart, but the specific way it falls apart is testament to the ingenuity with which Andrews has constructed her plot. The novel’s first sixty pages or so feel somewhat extraneous at first, but taken in the context of the whole the shifting power dynamics between Florence and Simon can be seen as a sort of shot across the bow: Florence’s behaviour is coldly calculating and her attempt to coerce Simon into publishing her short story collection – which includes stalking the editor’s wife and child – is creepy and unsavoury.
It is only the first instance in which Florence will make compromises with her own morality in an attempt to get what she wants; by the time her Moroccan scheme unravels and the truth about her accident is made clear, she will have real blood on her hands and her true nature will have been revealed (ironically, while also simultaneously being obscured).
Early in their relationship, Florence tries to use her proximity to a bestselling author as inspiration for her own prose. She has been blocked for months and having sequestered herself in her new employer’s house, she sits down to write, but all she can come up with is a single, declarative sentence: “I am.” Andrews’s sharp thriller acts as an interrogation of that straightforward assertion, suggesting layers of subterranean meaning and ambiguity beneath those two deceptively direct monosyllables.