The Personal Assistant
The internet has made it hard to keep secrets, especially for celebrities. In The Personal Assistant, author Kimberly Belle tackles the question of just where the line between public discourse and private matters should be drawn for social media gurus – or if there even is one.
Her first viral post had given her a huge buzz. It had been a picture of her stretch-marked belly with a caption about the importance of being unapologetically real. The message had sparked a hashtag – -#purpleandproud – and a career. Alex has slowly built a following since that first, glorious moment of attention and is now a significant social influencer, with a book deal and a partnership with Target in the works. Her husband Patrick, a television financial advisor, has been supportive of her career in the spotlight and has good-naturedly allowed stories and photos of himself and their twin daughters to be part of Alex’s success. It all crashes and burns when one drunken night, a post is added to her #unappolegictiallyalex account. One that slut shames a young actress whose legion of fans turn on Alex, along with Alex’s own followers who now consider her messages of positivity a sham behind which her hateful heart hides. The only problem is, Alex didn’t write that message.
At first, Alex’s only response is to reach out to her sharp, media-savvy assistant AC for help. It takes longer than it should for her to realize that AC has silently – and suspiciously – disappeared. AC was last seen leaving Alex’s house by Uber, but while the driver insists he dropped her at home, her roommate is equally insistent that AC never came in the door. Now Alex must face the fact that the woman whom she trusted with private information about herself and her family is probably spearheading the online mob out for Alex’s blood. That same woman has told the angry masses where Alex lives, all about Alex’s twins and her husband, and is daily sharing information Alex never intended to share. Just what is driving AC to do all this and what exactly is Alex to tell the police, who seem to think she and her husband are responsible for AC’s disappearance?
This is a mystery written from alternating perspectives – our narrators are AC, Alex, and Patrick, and none of them is particularly likable. It is clear from the start that money is a huge motivator for all of them and it is easy to wonder if any of them have a moral scruple they won’t cross in the pursuit of it. Alex and Patrick are almost understandable typical suburbanites – they have an American Dream-style concept of the good life that revolves around instagramable vacations, a large, luxurious house, plenty of stuff, and picture-perfect kids. To get that, they sell themselves – or at least a persona they pass off as themselves. Alex’s online character might be all about keeping it real, but the reality she shows her followers is often staged. The pictures she posts are performance art, taken and retaken until they capture casual perfection, and most are shot through flattering lenses. Every outfit shown is carefully coordinated, and every scene is choreographed to the last detail. Alex views what she does as a job, but my more skeptical impression of it was that she is a scam artist, selling falsehood in the name of truth and uncaring about how she uses the people around her in her quest for fame and fortune. As her daughters approach their teens, they and Patrick make it pretty clear they want to opt out; Alex makes it equally clear that isn’t happening. Throughout the book, she makes choices, such as giving AC a key to their house and her home office, against her family’s wishes – which wind up costing them all a lot.
I liked Patrick a bit better. He’s a money guru who appears on TV weekly with tips on how to help others grow wealth. Throughout the story, we are left with lingering doubts as to whether he’s a brilliant investor or something a bit shadier, but whatever his flaws, he is a supportive husband and a loving father to his two step-daughters. We know he has a big secret, but it is clear from the start that he is less concerned with keeping it than with keeping his family safe.
My favorite character at the beginning was AC. In the first few chapters, she’s a hardworking maid at a hotel who wants nothing more than to make a success of her life and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that. Unfortunately, she meets up with the wrong kind of people and gets sucked into their not-so-pure pursuit of the almighty dollar. It brings out a side of her that highlights she is less than scrupulous and more than a little stupid.
Something the author does very well is to show us how the mixing of these three personalities is actually the impetus for all that happens within the narrative. Trade any one of them out for another person, and the results would likely have been wildly different. It gives plausibility to a plot that would have been far-fetched otherwise.
I also appreciated the straightforward nature of the mystery. It’s a puzzle, with each piece we get giving a clearer picture of what happened/is happening without any big misdirections that leave the reader questioning everything that goes before. Reliable narrators are refreshing in today’s market, and I felt these three were (mostly) honest in that respect.
Most tales are flawed, and this one’s foible is that I was left with some questions and doubts about the ending, but that’s mostly a quibble. The pacing also lags at times.
That said, The Personal Assistant is a well-written whodunit that I think will appeal to mystery fans who don’t mind some dark content in their stories.
Note: Reference is made to murder, rape and torture, a pregnant woman is hit and internet bullying/trolling is part of the story.
I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.