An interesting, unsettling novel of obsession and twisted friendship
Abby Graven is a dreamer. She dreams her way through her small, lonely life – hiding back at her parents, working at the grocery store. At night, she collects tabloid clippings that taunt her with Elise – her best friend, now Hollywood’s hot new starlet.
When a school reunion throws Elise in her path, Abby seizes her chance. With feverish certainty, she boards a one-way flight to LA to become Elise’s assistant and enters her gauzy realm of film sets and glamorous actors.
But behind Elise’s glossy magazine veneer, she is drowning in Hollywood’s vicious social cycle. Ever the devoted friend, Abby conceals her own burning desire for greatness.
For she is smarter than Elise. More talented. A true artist. And as she edges closer to her own ambitions, Abby can see only one way to make her dream come true.
After spotting the cover for this novel online, I did some digging and the synopsis caught my attention. I was lucky enough to receive a review copy, and dove in shortly after it arrived. I’m a sucker for novels set in and around Hollywood, and I enjoyed Acampora’s take on a friendship twisted by ambition and an unsettling obsession.
Acampora’s prose is really, really good. One notices this from the beginning, as we begin to read Abby’s story. Told as if Abby is narrating for Elise, there is automatically a slightly creepy sense of obsession.
There is much to like in The Paper Wasp. Acampora has a real gift for sparse description, and the way she has written the interactions between Abby and Elise — not to mention the former’s obsessive, sometimes stalker-esque observations of Elise’s life — are excellent, compelling and realistic. The novel has many examples of brilliant turns of phrase, and sharp social and personal observations. Take, for example, Abby’s description of a dismissive professor:
“He interrupted. ‘You intend to major in screen arts and cultures?’ I nodded, and he looked at me for a heavy beat. ‘You may consider taking time off. In fact, I insist you do. Reconsider your goals.’ He leaned back in his chair ostentatiously, flaunting his leisure, his job security, and dismissed me with a Jedi koan: ‘Let the work find you.'”
Much is made of the “friendship” at the centre of this novel — it’s mentioned a couple of times on the cover (front and back). However, I don’t think I’d characterize the relationship between Abby and Elise as a “friendship”. Indeed, from the very beginning, it becomes clear that Abby is obsessed with Elise, holding on to their childhood friendship and closeness. She collects clippings about and pictures of Elise from the gossip and entertainment magazines, storing them in a box under her bed. The two haven’t seen each other for about a decade. Abby reaching out to Elise is presumptuous, but the latter nevertheless sees it as an opportunity to exploit Abby’s interest and enduring desire to be within the star’s orbit.
The novel has a lot to say about “friendship”, rivalry, competition, and ambition. For the main, it’s very well done. However, there was one key aspect of the novel that didn’t work for me: the dream stuff. That’s vague, I know, but dreams and the significance of them plays a big part in the novel. Abby is frequently plagued by dreams into which she reads great meaning, and often they do seem to bleed into the present. I’m not the biggest fan of dream sequences in fiction, TV, or movies — so, I guess I’m not the right audience for this approach. (I know many people who do like it, though, so if that’s you: don’t let this put you off.)
As I said, there is a lot to like in the novel. However, it nevertheless left me feeling a bit cold. Partly, this is because the “friendship” touted on the cover never really seemed to be there. Sure, it’s clear that there was something there when they were kids. But what we read of the present is not friendship: it’s obsession on Abby’s part, and a generous exploitation on Elise’s. The story proceeds at a pretty gentle pace for the most part, but then towards the end events speed up and Abby makes some pretty extreme choices. In some ways, it was predictable — mainly because the nature of the genre leads readers to expect something like that to happen.
A cautious recommendation, then.