Tara Isabella Burton’s new novel is a vivid account of how sin slowly creeps in

A thought that went through my head after telling my therapist her services were no longer needed: I could continue to send my mother the Venmo request for the insurance co-pay for which she insisted on reimbursing me.

This came to mind as I was reading Social Creature. Perhaps it is because I sometimes have shameful thoughts like this that I can, if not relate to, at least go along for the ride with the terribly privileged, selfish, striving characters of Tara Isabella Burton’s debut novel.

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Social Creatureby Tara Isabella Burton

Doubleday. 288p $26.95 

At the top of the social food chain is Lavinia, a glamorous 23-year-old on “sabbatical” from Yale to work on her novel, whose Upper East Side apartment and penchant for exclusive clubs, luxury gyms and bottomless champagne flutes is bankrolled by parents living in Paris. There is the wannabe, soon-to-be-over-the-hill (i.e., 29) writer, Louise, a middle-class transplant to the city who is scraping by on three jobs before Lavinia decides to take “poor Louise” under her wing. They both have something to gain from this friendship: for Louise, a new wardrobe, trips to the opera, introductions to the right literati types; for Lavinia, someone pretty (but not too pretty) to populate selfies in her exquisitely curated Instagram and Facebook feeds. It is not difficult to see how this relationship could turn toxic; in fact, as Burton reveals in the first chapter, it takes just six months for it to turn fatal.

How does poor Louise go from thinking, I need this money more than her to stealing Lavinia’s cash? From getting used to the lifestyle that cash provides to being willing to kill to maintain that lifestyle? To using a dead girl’s credit card to start a new life?

“It’s a book less about someone trying to get away with something,” Burton told me on the America podcast “Jesuitical,” “and more about the spiritual corrosion that happens when you do get away with something that maybe you shouldn’t get away with.”

You will not walk away from Social Creature with much hope for justice in this world. But you will take with you a vivid account of how sin creeps in when we use others, even the people we say we love the most, as characters and tools in our own stories.

Which is all to say, I’m really glad I didn’t send that Venmo request.

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Stanley Kopacz
1 year 7 months ago

The (former) finance lady in our parish stole $500K over a period of a few years. I could imagine it starting as a "loan", then tardiness in payback, then "what the heck".

Declan Murphy
1 year 7 months ago

A fascinating theme. The late Inkling, Charles Williams, wrote a novel, Descent into Hell, in a similar vein. It graphically describes the gradual and progressive self-condemnation of a soul to Hell. The infernal process begins when the protagonist proves incapable of taking delight in another’s success — a seemingly trivial failing but an augury of bigger sins to come.

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