Unreliable narrators have been all the rage in the thriller market for the last decade and Charlotte Duckworth offers us a smorgasbord of instability in her new novel Unfollow Me. A cautionary tale about the dangers of social media and how interconnectedness can put us in touch with some people we definitely don’t want in our lives, this book takes us down a dark road with some unlikely villains.
Violet, the mother of three young children, turned her battle against Postnatal Depression into a million dollar industry through a series of vlogs, workshops, Instagram posts and a YouTube channel. Her subscribers tune in daily to catch glimpses of her beautiful life, the little pieces of her family she doles out in careful, attractively scripted portions with just the right touch of humility and charm.
When all her social media accounts suddenly disappear without a trace and without any kind of explanation, her devotees become concerned. Violet has been honest about her struggles with depression, about her lack of sleep and how she can feel overwhelmed by it all. Have these issues become too much for her? Or has her stalker, a troll who criticizes her every decision, forced her to delete all her accounts in order to protect her family? Many have never liked her seemingly perfect husband Henry, the kind of guy who seems more of a lady’s man than a dad. Does he have something to do with her disappearance? As all these theories are endlessly analyzed and talked over on mummy discussion boards, Violet’s silence is deafening.
If you’re someone who doesn’t want to read about kids and the struggles of parenting, this novel isn’t for you. The author does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the world of the young mothers and want-to-be mothers of the online mummy communities. The story mostly unfolds through three viewpoints: Lily, a young mother who follows Violet’s vlog religiously; Yvonne, a wannabe mummy; and Henry, Violet’s husband. Ms. Duckworth captures perfectly, through their eyes, the struggle of modern child rearing.
Yvonne and her husband Simon are desperately trying to have a baby. Her mother-in-law blames her for their difficulties with conceiving, and is harshly judgmental about Yvonne having waited so long to have a child. In fact, Yvonne feels all society looks down upon her for not having perfected the art of balancing a career, marriage and family at the proper age. Her desire for a baby is almost painful and her despair and longing leap off the page as we slowly learn just how far she is willing to go to make up for this deficit in her life. Watching Violet’s YouTube channel is a bit of torture for her but following the young woman who has everything in life Yvonne dreamt would be hers – gorgeous home, lovely children, doting, handsome husband – is a compulsion. And yet when Violet goes missing, Yvonne is sincerely worried about her, concerned that something awful has destroyed this seemingly perfect family.
Lily, a single mom with a young toddler, is another person who can’t stop thinking about the missing media sensation. Watching Violet’s videos while sipping (or chugging) a glass of wine (or more) is the highlight of her evening. Lily has had a hard last four years and feels like there is no way out of the pit she is in. She knows her interest in Violet can’t possibly be healthy but she can’t seem to keep herself from clinging to that obsession. She loves her son but she doesn’t love the many challenges he adds to her life. Lily’s clueless about how to fix her own world and realizes this is why she has attached herself to the artificially perfect family she sees on her computer screen. She misses the videos so much she begins to look for Violet in real life, digging up clues about where the family lives, where the children go to school, what parks they play at. She is certain that her genuine concern for the family means this isn’t stalking but researching.
Violet’s family life as depicted on her YouTube channel is fake, something with which her husband Henry is growing increasingly frustrated. The only time Violet is with the children is when she is filming them, otherwise she is endlessly working on her influencer career or busy staging scenes which give the appearance of familial and marital bliss that they just don’t have. He fears the trolls online may become problems in real life and given that they don’t need the money, he doesn’t understand why Violent won’t quit. Henry’s misery over his wife’s career has led him to want something good in his own life, to flash a smile that isn’t just for the cameras and he thinks he’s figured out just what how to do that. He knows it will come with costs, he just has no idea how high the price will be.
There isn’t a great deal of action here since this is very much a character-driven story. The author does an amazing job of slowly unravelling the truth about our three sympathetic narrators until we realize that in fact, these people are not at all who we thought they were. Almost everything I thought I knew about them had to be discarded, and I loved the process of discovering the truth behind the numerous masks Lilly, Henry and Yvonne wear.
One of the highlights of the book is that there aren’t any super creepy, psychotic villains. Many of the things the characters do aren’t that atypical, it’s just when you add them all together that a picture of dysfunction slowly starts to emerge. And they are unethical and immoral rather than criminal, reminding us that harmful actions don’t have to be illegal to be impactful.
The book does contain some elements that might be triggering for some readers. A sexual assault is described, not in detail but definitely with enough clarity so that we know how traumatizing it was for the victim, and several bad/dangerous things happen to children. I’m pretty squeamish when it comes to the latter and I wasn’t triggered but I wanted to warn people up front.
The story’s flow isn’t perfect, with some stops and starts that can cause it to drag at points but these moments are mercifully brief and the pace always picked back up before I grew bored.
Unfollow Me is the first novel I’ve read by Ms. Duckworth but it definitely won’t be the last. Anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers should definitely give this book a try.